World / Politics

Trump looks to meet North Korea's Kim — again — but will this be more than a photo op?

by Jesse Johnson and Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writers

Even on foreign soil, U.S. President Donald Trump — a notorious creature of habit — doesn’t stray too far from his Saturday morning ritual: firing off tweets that routinely shake up the geopolitical order.

Trump on Saturday continued this practice by extending an invitation via Twitter to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to meet him when he visits the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, this weekend.

Asked at a news conference about the possible meeting after the conclusion of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka — his second visit to Japan in two months — Trump said he would have “no problem” stepping into North Korea if he meets Kim.

“Sure I would, I would,” Trump said. “I’d feel very comfortable doing that. I’d have no problem.”

But, asked if it would be a bad sign if the young dictator failed to show up, Trump insisted that that was unlikely.

“No. … He follows my Twitter,” he said as U.S. aides at the news conference burst into laughter. “I mean I guess so, because we got a call very quickly, but you know they’ve contacted us.”

Trump said the visit would not be an “extended” meeting, rather “just a quick ‘hello.'”

That quick response came in the form of a reply by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui — a fluent English speaker and increasingly powerful official known for her close ties to Kim. Choe assessed the proposal as “very interesting.” She did, however, note that the regime had “not received an official proposal,” though the Financial Times, quoting an unidentified source familiar with the situation, said the White House was drafting an invitation.

“This morning, President Trump … stated his position through Twitter that he wishes to meet and exchange greetings with Comrade Chairman of the State Affairs Commission in the Demilitarized Zone,” Choe said via the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“If the DPRK-U.S. summit meetings take place on the division line, as is intended by President Trump, it would serve as another meaningful occasion in further deepening the personal relations between the two leaders and advancing the bilateral relations,” she added.

Trump’s apparently spur-of-the-moment invitation to Kim stole some of the spotlight from what had been the most anticipated event to come out of the international conference — discussions to restart U.S.-China trade talks. Both sides agreed to continue those talks, with Washington saying it would not impose additional tariffs, at least for the time being.

“After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon),” Trump tweeted at 7:51 a.m. “While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

It was unclear if South Korean President Moon Jae-in would accompany him on any visit across the border.

If the meeting were to take place, it would be Trump’s third face-to-face encounter with the North Korean leader — the first since denuclearization talks in Vietnam fell apart over disagreements on potential U.S. sanctions relief and how “denuclearization” would proceed.

While Trump insisted that the idea for a meeting at the border was spontaneous, there were indications that contradicted this assertion.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was suspiciously absent from a dinner Friday night with the top diplomats of G20 nations, while the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was in Seoul for talks with officials there, suggesting that the possible meeting may have been more planned than spontaneous.

Biegun was quoted as saying Friday that the United States is ready to hold talks with North Korea and move their denuclearization negotiations forward in a “simultaneous and parallel” manner, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

Biegun “reaffirmed that (the U.S.) is ready to hold constructive talks with the North to move the commitments of the June 12 Singapore Joint Declaration between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un forward in a simultaneous and parallel manner,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the joint document that emerged from the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.

It was unclear if this meant a shift in the White House’s stance, as it has insisted on a maximalist outcome — “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea” — first and foremost.

In late January, ahead of the second Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, Biegun said the U.S. was “prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust … and advance further progress in parallel on the Singapore summit objectives of transforming relations, establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula and complete denuclearization.”

Those comments had raised expectations by some observers that the Trump administration had adopted a more flexible approach. However, those hopes were dashed at the Hanoi summit, when the president and his team continued to insist on a “big deal” that saw Pyongyang give up all its nukes in exchange for sanctions relief.

Experts say Kim will never bargain away his nuclear weapons, which he views as essential to the survival of his regime.

In recent weeks, however, the two leaders have exchanged correspondence, with Trump boasting of a “beautiful” letter he received on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the pair’s first summit in Singapore and Kim making the rare announcement that he, too, had received an “excellent” letter from Trump. In that announcement, which came just days before the G20 summit, Kim praised Trump’s “courage” for speaking with him.

“Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong Un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content,” a report by the official Korean Central News Agency said, without detailing the contents of the letter.

Trump has repeatedly touted the North’s halt to nuclear and “large-scale” ballistic missile tests, a point he continued to hammer home on Saturday.

“I can tell you every — it seemed every week somebody was calling me to say, ‘Missiles are being shot over Japan,'” he said. “And maybe the happiest of what we’ve done are the Japanese people and our great Prime Minister Abe.”

Jean Lee, former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang who now heads the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank’s Korea Program, said any potential meeting could help restart the talks between the two countries, but that more work needed to be done.

“Two minutes is long enough for a photo op — but it’s not long enough for negotiations,” Lee said, adding that the move “would kickstart talks on getting back to the negotiating table.”

Still, there are questions as to the U.S. president’s true motivation for seeking a meeting with Kim. If Trump were to set foot into the North, he would be the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

“Trump clearly wants a historic moment, and stepping across the Demarcation Line into North Korean territory to shake Kim’s hand would go down in history,” Lee said. “He knows the power of drama. And perhaps he’s content with stringing Kim along for these photo ops because they allow him to claim that he has a better relationship with North Korea than any other U.S. president before him, and that does help with his re-election campaign.”