The historic diplomatic encounter planned for three weeks from now between President Donald Trump and North Korean despot Kim Jong Un appeared in doubt on Tuesday as Trump questioned whether preparations could be completed in time.
“There’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out,” Trump said in the Oval Office, where he was sitting for critical talks with his South Korean counterpart. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t work out over a period of time, but it may not work out for June 12.”
It was the clearest indication to date that the audacious summit Trump agreed to in March may be at risk. Last week, North Korea adopted a harsh new tone and threatened to withdraw from the meeting, which is due to occur in Singapore.
Trump said preparations were “moving along” for the talks with Kim, but suggested there may not be enough time for the two sides to agree on mutually agreeable parameters.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it’ll happen later. Maybe it’ll happen at a different time. But we are talking.”
In his meetings Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump hoped to gain clarity on North Korea’s nuclear intentions. Moon, meanwhile, was hoping to shore up confidence for the Kim meeting, which he helped to broker.
Some US officials believe Moon oversold Pyongyang’s promises when his government relayed Kim’s invitation to Trump for talks in March. At the time his envoy said North Korea was “committed to denuclearization,” but recent statements from the North have cast doubts on Kim’s willingness to negotiate away his nuclear weapons.
That, in turn, has led to skepticism the summit between Trump and Kim will proceed. White House aides have grown pessimistic in recent days that the talks will occur, even as Trump has shown few signs he’s ready to withdraw.
Trump said Tuesday he believed Kim was earnest in his nuclear vows.
“I do think he’s serious. I do think he’d like to see that happen,” Trump said.
And he suggested Pyongyang had much to gain from striking a deal.
“North Korea has a chance to be a great country and it can’t be a country under these circumstances they are living right now,” Trump said. “I think they should seize the opportunity.”
Moon, who has urged a diplomatic path in the belief it could forestall war, arrived in Washington in a bid to bolster confidence that the Singapore meeting will be a success. He met with Kim himself last month to great fanfare along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a historic encounter that Trump hopes to replicate in his own talks.
Those plans were complicated last week when North Korea issued a series of harsh statements condemning joint US-South Korea military exercises and threatening to pull out of the Trump summit if the US continues to call for nuclear abandonment.
US officials were prepared to press Moon on the recent shift in tone, hoping to determine whether it is a signal of changing intentions or whether the North is simply trying to test Trump’s willingness to negotiate ahead of the summit.
“We believe there is a 99.9% chance the North Korea-US summit will be held as scheduled,” Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser, told reporters on the flight from Seoul to Washington. “But we’re just preparing for many different possibilities.”
The two leaders met in the Oval Office at noon before joining a larger working lunch with aides. There was no joint news conference on the schedule, and Moon was only expected to be at the White House for roughly two hours.
He did meet with some of Trump’s aides earlier in the day, however, as questions about the administration’s approach to the summit continue to mount.
National security adviser John Bolton, who has been outspoken in his hawkish views toward North Korea, drew Pyongyang’s ire when he suggested Trump use a so-called “Libya model” to rid the country of its nuclear weapons. The US brokered a deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2003 to abandon his nuclear weapons, but he was overthrown and killed in 2011.
The Libya suggestion raised eyebrows in Seoul, where Bolton’s comments were deemed unhelpful at best and deeply damaging to the potential for diplomacy at worst. Trump later clarified that he wasn’t pursuing the Libya model in North Korea, but speculated things could end poorly for Kim if he doesn’t agree to a deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has meanwhile adopted a more diplomatic approach, saying an agreement with Kim to abandon nuclear weapons could lead to economic assistance. Pompeo has met Kim twice in North Korea but didn’t emerge with any specific commitments toward dismantling the nuclear program.
“Plans continue to go forward for a summit. We remain open to it, we remain hopeful,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Fox Radio Tuesday. “But let me very clear: nothing has changed about the policy of the United States of America. There have been no concessions offered and none given.”