With less than three weeks to go before the first-ever planned U.S.-North Korea summit, both sides are engaging in a delicate diplomatic dance, claiming that the landmark event might not even be held while also serving up concessions to draw the other back to the negotiating table.
The see-sawing odds of the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump took a turn for the worse Tuesday when the American leader, hosting his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, said “there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out.”
“There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions,” Trump said. “And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”
Still, Trump held out hope that if the June 12 meeting in Singapore is canceled, it could be held at another point in time, noting that he believes Kim is “very serious” about denuclearization.
“If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later,” Trump said. “Maybe it will happen at a different time.”
Jenny Town, managing editor of the North Korea-watching 38 North website, called the summit process “made for TV,” and said observers “should expect these kinds of cliffhanger hints from President Trump rather than be surprised by them.”
Town said that while such statements were unlikely to affect the odds that the meeting will happen, they do hedge that proposition.
“There’s been a lot of criticism that Trump is desperate for a win on the North Korea front, this could just be a way of pushing back on that criticism,” she said.
The Trump administration has pursued a hard-line stance of seeking the North’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” but the president’s comments on “conditions” that Washington desires appeared to leave the door open to a more gradual, phased approach that will see biting U.N. and unilateral U.S. sanctions eased.
Asked if he would be open to letting the North incrementally relinquish its nuclear weapons, Trump alluded to this possibility.
“It would certainly be better if it were all in one. Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself,” he said.
Analysts say smaller steps toward a larger goal of denuclearization are likely the only real option for Trump.
“I think regardless of what the public messaging may be at the moment, the only way denuclearization is going to be achieved is through a phased approach,” Town said.
She said that while the U.S. would seek not to reveal its hand as to how flexible its negotiating stance may be, Trump’s messaging highlighted “the realities of a denuclearization process.”
“The question is what is a realistic time frame for that phased approach given the technical requirements of verification along the way and reciprocal actions that will be needed at each phase,” she said.
The North, which lashed out last week over the prospect pushed by the U.S. of the so-called Libya model of denuclearization, is also likely to be far more willing to discuss a phased approach, said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
But, said Davis, Pyongyang could cheat and circumvent any agreement — something it has a long history of — leading to a breakdown in the thaw with the U.S. and South Korea.
“The stance with North Korea has to be ‘distrust and verify,’ ” said Davis. “North Korea will obstruct any verification measures, and our patchy intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure will make it difficult to verify.”
While Trump’s words Tuesday did little to dampen speculation that the hotly anticipated meeting might be canceled or postponed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. side was “continuing to prepare … so that in the event that the summit takes place on June 12 we are fully prepared, with the mission statement having not changed at all.”
“This could be something that comes right to the end and doesn’t happen,” Pompeo said, adding that as of now, “we’re driving on.”
Earlier this week, South Korea’s national security adviser put the chance of the summit taking place at “99.9 percent.”
Both Trump and Pompeo’s remarks came as top aides prepared to travel to Singapore for a crucial planning meeting this weekend with North Korean officials focusing on the specific agenda and logistics for the summit, The Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing anonymous sources familiar with the situation.
Their trip comes less than two weeks after a North Korean delegation failed to attend a similar planning meeting with U.S. officials in the city state, a failure that raised red flags at the White House, the sources said.
The Post report also said that the North had “sent signals to U.S. officials that Kim is skittish about logistical concerns,” including ensuring that his plane would be able to access enough fuel for the 9,600-kilometer (6,000-mile) round-trip flight as well as safeguarding his security while on the ground in Singapore, according to the people familiar with the deliberations.
In a sign that the young North Korean leader may have yet to completely cement his grip on power, the report said Kim is purportedly concerned that a trip so far from home could leave him open to a military coup or other internal attempts to unseat him.
For his part, the U.S. president reiterated on Tuesday a commitment to providing the Kim regime with a security guarantee if it relinquishes its nuclear arsenal.
“He will be safe. He will be happy. His country will be rich. His country will be hard-working and very prosperous,” Trump said.
“South Korea, China, and Japan … will be willing to help and, I believe, invest very, very large sums of money into helping to make North Korea great,” he said.
For Trump, who has invested much of his political capital in solving the seemingly intractable nuclear crisis, the summit is a chance to make his mark in the history books. Privately most U.S. officials, as well as outside observers and experts, believe the summit will go ahead despite recent hard-line rhetoric out of Pyongyang. That rhetoric has the White House fearing Kim is reverting to his default belligerent stance in a bid to gain leverage in the talks or to pull out entirely.
Last week, North Korea abruptly threatened to cancel the Kim-Trump summit if Washington presses ahead with its demand that Pyongyang unilaterally give up its nuclear arsenal.
Trump voiced suspicion that the North’s recent shift was influenced by Kim’s unannounced visit to China two weeks ago — his second in as many months, saying he’d noticed “a little change” in Kim’s attitude after that trip.
“I don’t like that,” he said.
The president added that he hoped Chinese leader Xi Jinping was actually committed to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and to enforcing U.N. sanctions, calling him a “world-class poker player.”
On Wednesday, North Korea accepted a list of South Korean reporters to attend a ceremony scheduled for this week marking the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site after days of ignoring Seoul’s request, according to the Unification Ministry. Journalists from other news outlets from other countries had arrived in the country on Tuesday and were awaiting transport to the test site.
A CNN reporter said Wednesday that the South Koreans had arrived in the city of Wonsan and that the group of journalists were due to leave for the nuclear site at 5:10 p.m.
According to the South’s Yonhap news agency, the distance between Wonsan and the Jaedok Station, adjacent to the Punggye-ri site, is known to be about 416 kilometers. Given the North’s railway conditions, it said, the train was likely run at a speed of about 35 kph, meaning the reporters were likely arrive there early Thursday morning.
North Korea had refused to take a list of reporters from the South after calling off planned inter-Korean talks last week in protest of joint U.S.-South Korean air force drills.
The invitations to view the event was seen as an indication that the North’s surprise offer to end its nuclear tests and dismantle the site still held despite the growing diplomatic uncertainty.
At his meeting with Trump, South Korea’s Moon heaped praise on Trump and pushed to keep the summit on track, stating he has “every confidence” that the U.S. president could reach a deal with Kim that would formally end the Korean War and bring “peace and prosperity” to the North.
“All this was possible because of you, Mr. President,” Moon said. “And I have no doubt that you will be able to … accomplish a historic feat that no one had been able to achieve in the decades past.”
Moon said that he emphasized to White House officials that Kim remains committed to the diplomatic process and that he expects inter-Korean talks to resume after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, known as Max Thunder, conclude next week.
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