The White House said Monday that talks are underway with North Korea over setting up a second summit meeting between President Trump and leader Kim Jong Un, as the two sides seek to put stalled nuclear negotiations back on track.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Kim requested the follow-up to the historic Singapore summit in June in a “warm, very positive letter” to Trump delivered in recent days.
“It’s something that we want to take place and are already working on making that happen,” Sanders said, although she emphasized that no decisions have been made regarding timing or a venue.
The announcement was the latest sign that Trump, despite growing frustration, remains heavily invested in the efforts to get Pyongyang to comply with pledges to denuclearize made during the Singapore meeting. Trump abruptly canceled a planned visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang three weeks ago, citing a lack of progress.
But the president has reacted positively to Kim’s recent overture, boasting at a rally in Montana late last week that Kim had “said some terrific things about me.”
“He said very strongly that we want to denuclearize North Korea during President Trump’s tenure,” Trump told supporters at the event in Billings, citing reports from South Korean emissaries who had visited Pyongyang and met with Kim last week.
Sanders said the White House would not release a copy of Kim’s letter without Pyongyang’s permission. She cited North Korea’s decision not to include ballistic missiles in a military parade in Pyongyang over the weekend as a sign that the Kim regime was taking steps not to antagonize the United States.
“The recent parade in North Korea, for once, was not about their nuclear arsenal,” Sanders said. “The president has achieved tremendous success with his policies so far. And this letter was further evidence of progress in that relationship.”
Some analysts had pointed to the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York in two weeks as a possible venue for a Trump-Kim meeting, but the North Korean leader has offered no indication that he plans to attend. U.S. officials have privately suggested it is unlikely that such a meeting would take place there during Trump’s two-day visit.
In a tweet Sunday, Trump described Kim’s decision not to display ballistic missiles as a “big and positive statement,” adding that there is “nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!”
But other White House aides struck more-cautious notes Monday. National security adviser John Bolton said the administration is “still waiting for them” to take significant action. Among other things, the United States is seeking a detailed declaration from the North over the size of its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals.
“The possibility of another meeting between the two presidents obviously exists,” Bolton said, “but President Trump can’t make North Korea walk through the door he’s holding open. They’re the ones that have to take the steps to denuclearize, and that’s what we’re waiting for.”
The latest about-face in the Trump-Kim relationship echoes the lead-up to the Singapore meeting, when Trump announced he was pulling out after Pyongyang made inflammatory comments, only to recommit after Kim dispatched a high-ranking aide to deliver a personal letter to the president.
Foreign policy analysts warned, however, that Kim’s willingness to meet with Trump was not a signal that Pyongyang would move forward with serious efforts to denuclearize. Rather, they said, Kim’s goal is to convince Trump to sign onto a deal that would declare a formal end to the Korean War, without giving up significant concessions.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Pyongyang is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons programs in secret, despite having not tested a weapon since agreeing to the Singapore summit.
“Kim Jong Un has shown himself to be very skilled in manipulating Trump through flattery and empty promises,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kim “watches everything that happens closely, [Trump’s] domestic troubles and everything else, and they smell an opportunity.”
In recent weeks, Trump has accused China, in the midst of an escalating trade war with the United States, of exerting negative influence over Kim that had contributed to the breakdown in negotiations.
A high-ranking Chinese official joined Kim at the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding, signaling Beijing’s intent to continue deepening ties with Pyongyang.
Asked if Beijing deserves some credit for Kim’s outreach to Trump, Sanders replied: “The president deserves the credit in this process. He’s been the lead voice and the one that put the initial pressure on North Korea. . . . Frankly, we’d still like to see them step up and do more.”
South Korean officials said after meeting with Kim that the North Korean leader pledged to denuclearize by 2020, when Trump would face a reelection effort. Analysts suggested the timeline signals that Kim believes he needs to lock in a peace treaty before Trump leaves office because a successor is less likely to engage in such negotiations.
“Kim has concluded he needs to make a deal with Trump,” Terry said. “He’s the only person who would get to a peace treaty. It’s the one and only opportunity for North Korea to achieve the thing they always thought they needed to have.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.