It’s back on. U.S. President Donald Trump reversed course Friday, announcing that his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will, indeed, be held on June 12 in Singapore, but noted pointedly that Japan, South Korea and China — not the United States — would cover the cost of economic aid, saying “that’s their neighborhood; it’s not our neighborhood.”
In confirming the summit, Trump said he believed it would be a “very successful” meeting and “ultimately, a successful process.”
The announcement came as Trump met at the White House with North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief and the country’s de facto No. 2 official, who had to receive a special waiver to enter the U.S. due to sanctions stemming from his alleged role in the North’s nuclear program and other illicit activities.
Trump had abruptly canceled the summit last month, citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility,” but on Friday said the meeting would be “a great start.”
Still, amid all the fanfare and political drama, the U.S. president also attempted to tamp down expectations for the meeting, where the two sides are due to discuss the North’s nuclear weapons program, calling it a “beginning.”
“I think it’ll be a process,” Trump said at the White House. “I never said it goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process. But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.”
Although the White House had initially said the meeting would only be held to discuss the North’s immediate denuclearization, the president on Friday signaled a recalibration that the U.S. could agree to a type of “phased” or incremental approach to that issue.
Trump said that while he believes North Korea is committed to denuclearization,”we’re not going to go in and sign something on June 12th and we never were.”
“We’re going to start a process,” he said. “And I told them today, ‘Take your time. We can go fast. We can go slowly.’ But I think they’d like to see something happen. And if we can work that out, that will be good.”
Trump’s 90-minute meeting with Kim Yong Chol, who the U.S. president called “the second most powerful man in North Korea,” made Kim the highest-level official from the country to set foot in the White House in 18 years.
The former spy chief, who reportedly met with Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff John Kelly, also delivered what appeared to be a comically oversized letter from Kim Jong Un to the president, photos showed. Trump initially told reporters that the letter was “very interesting” when asked about its contents, but later admitted that he had not yet read it.
“I may be in for a big surprise, folks,” he joked.
And so could U.S. allies.
Asked if the U.S. planned to offer economic aid at the June 12 summit, Trump said that he doesn’t “see the United States spending a lot of money.”
“What’s going to happen is South Korea will do that,” Trump said. “No, I don’t think the United States is going to have to spend. I think South Korea will do it. I think China … will help out. I think that Japan will help out.”
Justifying this, Trump pointed to the distance between the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. — despite its long-standing alliances with Japan and South Korea and its strategic interests in the area.
“Look, we’re very far away,” he said. “We are very far away. Those places are very close. It’s their neighborhood. We’re thousands — we’re 6,000 miles (9,650 km) away. So I’ve already told South Korea, I said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to get ready.’ And Japan, also.”
He added: “I think they really want to see something great happen. Japan does, South Korea does, and I think China does. But that’s their neighborhood; it’s not our neighborhood.”
The U.S. has touted itself as a “Pacific power,” and long worked to craft a web of alliances in the region that have bolstered commerce and aided stability, experts say.
Much of this interlinking system, however, has been viewed with suspicion by Trump. And some allies — including Japan — fear what he might trade away in any deal with the North, despite repeated reassurances from administration officials that the U.S. remains committed to the region.
Tokyo has specifically asked that Trump bring up at the June 12 summit the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. It has also urged him to push Pyongyang to give up its short- and midrange ballistic missiles that are capable of striking Japan.
Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the RAND Corp., a California-based think tank, said Trump’s remarks about the region “likely strike deep into the deepest sensitivities in both Seoul and Tokyo and the anxieties they have” about the president.
Because Japan has not been an active participant in the recent spate of diplomatic moves, and has relied on the U.S. to advocate for its interests, “this anxiety has been on steroids,” Hornung said, leaving policymakers in Tokyo fearing that Trump will make “a deal that protects the U.S. homeland from ICBM/IRBMs (intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles) but allow North Korea to keep short- to medium-range missiles capable of hitting Japan.”
Trump also said that North Korea’s human rights record was not discussed at the meeting with Kim Yong Chol — a sign that he did not raise the abduction issue, a top-priority issue for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — but has said he will address it “in great detail” during talks with Kim Jong Un.
Nevertheless, Abe was quoted as saying Saturday during a speech in Shiga Prefecture that Japan “is determined to make utmost efforts so that it will be a historic summit that will move forward the nuclear, missile and abduction issues.”
The prime minister, who has long worked to cultivate a close relationship with Trump, was mum on the U.S. leader’s remarks about the region.
Abe is scheduled to hold talks with Trump at the White House on June 7 before traveling to Canada for the Group of Seven summit on June 8 and 9.
But the mercurial U.S. leader may have his eyes on a grander goal than the primary issues of concern for Tokyo.
On Friday, he hinted at a possible peace treaty to end the Korean War — a Nobel Peace Prize-level achievement — the groundwork for which, he said, could emerge at the June 12 summit.
“That could happen,” he said, adding that he had “talked about it” during the meeting with Kim Yong Chol.
“We’re going to discuss it prior to the meeting,” he said. “That’s something that could come out of the meeting.”
North and South Korea have technically been in a state of war since the 1950-1953 Korean War, as fighting was halted after an armistice was signed in 1953 rather than a formal peace agreement.
As for what Pyongyang might receive in exchange for any deal, Trump said that sanctions relief could be part of such an agreement.
The U.S. president has touted his campaign of “maximum pressure” as having brought the North to the negotiating table, a claim refuted by the Pyongyang. That campaign saw the U.N. impose its most stringent sanctions regime to date.
But some experts say that the choking sanctions regime, while a contributing factor, was not the main reason for the recent detente with North Korea. Rather, they point to its claims by the North late last year and early this year that it had “completed” its quest for nuclear weapons.
Asked if “maximum pressure” was over, Trump said “it’s going to remain what it is now,” but softened his tone on the campaign.
“I don’t even want to use the term ‘maximum pressure’ anymore because … we’re getting along,” he said. “You see the relationship. We’re getting along.”
RAND’s Hornung said retiring the phrase represents “a significant shift in the U.S. position.”
“Not only was this the position his administration has advocated for vociferously since it became engaged in the issue, and one that he credits having gotten him this far in making progress with Kim, but it is the position that Japan has advocated for 100 percent,” Hornung said.
“This doesn’t bode well for Japan,” he said, adding that “maximum pressure” had been a demonstration that the two allies were in lockstep.
“Assuming Abe did not also retire the phrase, this unilateral shift by the U.S. puts Japan off on its own diplomatic island, of sorts, given that it now remains the only country calling for maximum pressure,” Hornung said.
Hearing Trump’s unscripted comments, combined with his decision on maximum pressure, “probably has policymakers in Tokyo fearing that their nightmare scenario could be coming true that their interests will not be represented and an agreement will lock in security threats,” he said.
Friday’s shift was an extraordinary change in tone for Trump, who last year threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea because of the threat its nuclear weapons and missiles posed to the United States and its allies.
A day earlier in New York, Pompeo said that, after his two meetings with Kim Jong Un and three with Kim Yong Chol, he believes the North is at least ready to consider addressing U.S. demands for denuclearization.
“I believe they are contemplating a path forward,” he said. “They can make a strategic shift. One that their country has not been prepared to make before. This will obviously be their decision.”
The North has repeatedly claimed it is committed to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a phrase it has used in the past 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.
Still, it remains unclear whether Kim will ever agree to fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he views as the only thing preventing regime change.
At a security forum in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the troops issue will not be a part of the discussion at the Kim-Trump summit.
“That issue is not on the table here in Singapore on the 12th (of June), nor should it be,” he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit.
However, Mattis stressed that “any discussion about the number of U.S. troops in the Republic of Korea is subject to … the Republic of Korea’s invitation to have them there, and the discussions between the United States and the Republic of Korea, separate and distinct from the negotiations that are going on with DPRK (North Korea).”