Just a day after abruptly pulling out of a planned summit with North Korea’s leader, U.S. President Donald Trump held out hope Friday that the talks could still be held — possibly even on the scheduled June 12 date in Singapore.
“We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th., and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date,” Trump wrote in a tweet late Friday.
The head-spinning reversal started less than 24 hours after Trump withdrew Thursday from the summit in a letter addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the nuclear-armed North.
Early Friday, Trump had said that the United States was “talking to” North Korea.
Asked if it was playing games ahead of the summit, the president responded, “Everyone plays games,” adding: “We’ll see what happens, it could even be the 12th.”
Trump told reporters at the White House that both sides would like the summit to happen.
“They very much want to do it, we’d like to do it,” he stressed.
In a tweet earlier in the day, Trump called the North’s response to his pullout from the nuclear talks “very good news” and said that “we will soon see where it will lead.”
Pyongyang on Friday said in a statement that it is still willing to “sit with the U.S. side” for talks “at any time”.
Just a day earlier, a top North Korean official lambasted the Trump administration for “unlawful and outrageous acts” — a reference to comments from the White House about a “Libya-style” coerced denuclearization.
Trump called Friday’s remarks by the North as “warm and productive.”
U.S. officials appeared to be pressing ahead in the belief that the summit remains on the table.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that the meeting may still take place if diplomats can pull it off.
“We have got some, possibly some good news on the Korea summit, where it may, if our diplomats can pull it off, may have it back on,” Mattis was quoted as saying at the Pentagon. Mattis said the recent back-and-forth between Trump and North Korea was a part of the “usual give and take” that goes into putting a large summit together.
“The diplomats are still at work on the summit, possibility of a summit, so that is very good news,” Mattis said.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was quoted Friday as saying that “we are working on plans going forward.” While there are always “high points and low points” in diplomacy, she said, “we hope that the meeting will go forward at some point.”
The comments appeared to reflect a broadly shared perception coming from the White House and State Department that the two leaders still want to get together and that there will be a meeting eventually.
A White House-led advance team was even heading to Singapore this weekend as previously planned to deal with the logistics of a potential summit, Politico reported.
“We weren’t getting the right signals previously, so hopefully we will in the future,” Nauert said. “We didn’t want to go to a meeting just for the sake of going to a meeting. There had to be something to come out of it.”
Quoting a person familiar with the administration’s thinking, Bloomberg News reported Saturday that Trump’s letter was intended only to convey his decision against going ahead with the summit on June 12 — not to rule out a meeting in the future.
Kick-starting talks, however, will face a number of obstacles, including a possible credibility gap created by the dramatic about-face.
“If it does happen … the North Koreans are going to come back with a tougher negotiating position because the U.S. credibility has really been damaged by this letter and by the method in which the meeting was canceled to begin with,” Jenny Town, managing editor of the North Korea-watching 38 North website, said in a telephonic press briefing.
Town said Trump’s moves had undermined his chief emissary to the North, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, since it had appeared that hard-line national security adviser John Bolton had captured the president’s ear.
Bolton’s espousal of the Libya-style model of denuclearization had angered the North Koreans, who have long claimed that the decision by the country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, to relinquish its fledgling nuclear program led to his downfall and death.
It was unclear if Pompeo, who has traveled twice to Pyongyang for meetings with Kim, would continue to play a role in the negotiations.
Pompeo, however, spoke over the phone Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, about continuing to work closely on the talks with the North and thwarting its nuclear ambitions, the State Department said.
“They committed to remaining closely coordinated in all of their efforts to create conditions for dialogue with North Korea and agreed that must continue until North Korea embraces denuclearization,” Nauert said in a statement.
She said Pompeo and Kang had reaffirmed their commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula “and to the ironclad alliance” between the two amid concerns that Trump had not given Moon advance notice of his earlier decision to scrap the Kim summit.
After Trump’s latest missives about the possibility of the summit being held as scheduled, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House called the move a “fortunate” development.
“It’s a fortunate thing that the possibility of the North Korea-U.S. dialogue is still alive without being terminated,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom as saying. “(The Blue House) is carefully watching the progress.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, said he regretted the cancellation and said the world should keep doing its bit to make the summit happen.
Abe said he planned to hold talks with Trump over the telephone soon after returning to Japan on Sunday.
But despite the renewed momentum for the summit, some experts remain skeptical of Trump’s high-stakes attempts at deal-making with the North Koreans.
“If there is a summit … I don’t think they’re going to be able to deal with any of the big issues that are facing both countries, particularly the denuclearization issue,” Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank, said Friday during the joint telephonic press briefing.
“Everyone has to lower their expectations for a summit. And, as a number of us have been saying all along, the most you can hope for out of any meeting is a statement of general principles that will guide future negotiations,” said Wit, who also negotiated with the North Koreans while serving with the State Department.
And given Trump’s entertainment background, other experts said it would be wise not to attempt to divine the machinations of the mercurial president until the dust settles.
“It is best to treat this all like a reality TV show,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, wrote Friday on Twitter.
“It’s a game between Trump and KJU to get the upper hand before someone gets kicked off the island. Best not to react or try to predict the grand finale after every episode. Tune in at the end…or next season,” he wrote.