U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed Sunday that an advance team of veteran American diplomats is conducting talks with North Korean officials at the border between the two Koreas as both the U.S. and the North work to salvage a possible leaders’ summit — a push that faces a number of daunting challenges, analysts say.
“Our United States team has arrived in North Korea to make arrangements for the Summit between Kim Jong Un and myself,” Trump wrote Sunday on Twitter. “I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”
The State Department and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said earlier in the day that the U.S. delegation was holding a rare meeting with North Korean officials on their side of the truce village of Panmunjom, which straddles the border inside the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
“We continue to prepare for a meeting between the President and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Trump withdrew from the planned June 12 Singapore summit with Kim several days ago, but he quickly announced that it could get back on track.
While the U.S. did not announce the delegation’s members, The Washington Post reported earlier Sunday that Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former nuclear negotiator with the North, had been called in from his posting as envoy to the Philippines to lead the preparations.
Citing a person familiar with the arrangements, the Post reported that Kim was joined by Allison Hooker, the Korea specialist on the National Security Council, and an official from the Defense Department. Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for East Asia — one of the officials who accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang earlier this month — was also in Seoul at the moment. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined comment to The Japan Times when asked if Schriver was the Defense Department official involved in the preparatory talks.
Kim began his meetings Sunday with Choe Son Hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister who said last week that Pyongyang was “reconsidering” the talks. Both were part of the delegations that negotiated a 2005 denuclearization agreement through the now-defunct six-party talks.
The meetings were expected to continue through Tuesday.
The advance team, with years of experience on the North Korean nuclear issue, gives Trump a potent weapon as his administration seeks to bridge the vast differences on key issues — including denuclearization — ahead of what would be a historic meeting.
“This is a strong, knowledgeable team meeting with the North Koreans now,” said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense. “Hooker, Schriver, Kim — all experienced, all skeptics about North Korean intentions. So if they come away thinking there’s a deal to be had then there just might be — not denuclearization but something short of it perhaps.”
Still, the incredibly short time frame and the lack of involvement of other key players in the crisis was expected to leave the U.S. team scrambling.
“Two weeks to hammer out a lasting nuclear agreement without the participation of China and South Korea, the most crucial stakeholders besides Pyongyang in the region, seems short-sighted and highly overambitious” considering the “geopolitical complexities that exist in the region,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo.
The advance team backs up a separate CIA grouping that Pompeo set up last year when he headed the spy agency. That team has reportedly ferried back and forth between Seoul and Pyongyang for talks with North Korean officials. The White House also sent a logistical group to Singapore on Sunday to prepare in the event the summit is held there on June 12. It is led by Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff for operations.
Meanwhile, South Korea said Monday that President Moon Jae-in could also make a trip to Singapore for a three-way meeting with Trump and Kim next month, depending on the outcome of the U.S.-North discussions, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.
The trip, if made, would likely come around the June 12 summit, a top official from the South’s presidential Blue House said.
“The discussions are just getting started, so we are still waiting to see how they come out, but depending on their outcome, the president could join President Trump and Chairman Kim in Singapore,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Moon himself said Monday that there could be more impromptu talks and summits with Kim.
The flurry of diplomatic activity is the latest in a series of near-daily developments as the U.S. and North seek to lay the foundation for the first-ever summit between sitting leaders of their countries.
On Sunday, Moon briefed reporters about his sudden and secret summit with the North’s Kim a day earlier. Moon said Kim had reiterated his commitment to denuclearizing and to a Trump sit-down.
Trump said the same day in Washington that there was “a lot of goodwill” between the two countries and that the original summit plan “hasn’t changed.”
In his Sunday address, Moon said that Kim had “once again made clear his will for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “expressed his willingness to end the history of war and confrontation, and cooperate for peace and prosperity through a successful summit with the United States.”
The rare inter-Korean summit, just the fourth such talks ever between leaders of the two countries, came just under a month after their first meeting on April 27, when the pair agreed to work to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and, within the year, pursue talks with the United States to declare an official end to the Korean War, which ended in an armistice.
Significant differences, however, remain — especially over the U.S. and North Korean definition of “complete denuclearization.”
Moon has said Kim can be persuaded to agree to Washington’s demand for the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of his nuclear arms and missile programs in exchange for credible security and economic guarantees.
But the South Korean leader admitted Sunday that the process of the North relinquishing its nukes could be difficult even if Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul agree on any definition.
“Since both Chairman Kim and President Trump want a successful summit, I stressed that the two leaders need to settle misunderstandings through direct communication and have sufficient communication through working-level talks on the agenda to be agreed on at the summit,” Moon said Sunday, adding that Kim had agreed.
Asked by reporters at the end of Sunday’s news conference if Kim’s views on denuclearization were the same as the U.S., Moon appeared to sidestep the question, saying that the issue remained one Washington and Pyongyang needed to iron out.
“The U.S. and North Korea need to engage in working-level talks to confirm their intentions on denuclearization,” he said.
While experts say it is highly unlikely that the advance team will be able to persuade the North to relinquish its nuclear arsenal as quickly as Trump wants, negotiating the language and a timetable that both the U.S. president and Kim can agree on remains a distinct possibility.
Pyongyang has said it favors a phased and incremental approach to giving up its nukes, a move that would come in exchange for eased sanctions, formally ending the Korean War and a security guarantee for the regime.
Such an agreement would be a major win for Trump ahead of November midterm elections and would set the stage for further negotiations.
“This would be the most ideal outcome of any meeting if it were to occur,” said ICU’s Nagy.
“Kim could easily take this result home as it would be consistent with Pyongyang’s long-standing approach to negotiations and denuclearization,” said Nagy, who also serves as a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “For Trump, this may be more difficult to sell as he has stated very explicitly that Pyongyang would denuclearize under his administration.”
The apparent progress in the on-again-off-again U.S.-North talks followed several turbulent days of diplomatic brinkmanship that culminated in an abrupt letter written by Trump to Kim canceling the summit over the Pyongyang’s “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
The North had earlier issued two strongly worded statements, including one that threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” after comments by White House national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence urging a “Libya-style” coerced denuclearization of the North. Those comments had apparently amplified lingering concerns by Kim about his regime’s safety.
The North has repeatedly claimed it is committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but it remains unclear whether Kim will ever agree to fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he views as the only thing preventing regime change.
Pyongyang has been known to use the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to demand the U.S. remove its 28,500 troops in South Korea and pull back its “nuclear umbrella” security commitment to South Korea and Japan. But it has not repeated those same demands amid the recent detente.