The flurry of activity surrounding possible talks between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un appeared to be driven in large part by Trump’s fixation on keeping a June 12 date for the meeting — even though the president himself had abruptly called the whole thing off days earlier. In a series of tweets since then, Trump has suggested the summit will take place as scheduled in Singapore, even though his own advisers had warned last week it might be too late.
Trump’s latest change of direction was another sign that he has thrown out the conventional Washington playbook for his diplomatic high-wire act. From his impulsive, on-the-spot decision in March to accept Kim’s offer to meet, Trump has rushed headlong into an accelerated summit process that has led analysts to warn that he risks moving too quickly and setting himself up for failure.
“The pace of this stuff — it’s gone from the roller coaster ride of North Korea to the carnival ride ‘The Scrambler,’ ’’ said Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence official who serves as an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s dizzying. It throws off your inertia. At least a roller coaster is linear — The Scrambler is all directions at once.”
The latest sign was the news that Kim Yong Chol, a four-star general who has been at the forefront of North Korea’s diplomatic outreach, had landed at Beijing Capital International Airport on Tuesday, according to television footage from the airport.
He was initially booked on an Air China flight to Washington but changed it to a Wednesday flight bound for New York, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. That would have him arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Kim Yong Chol was directly sanctioned by the Treasury Department for his involvement in North Korea’s nuclear program and illicit activities while he served as director of intelligence, so the United States would have had to grant a waiver to allow him to enter the country.
He now serves as head of the United Front Department, the arm of the ruling Workers’ Party that handles relations with South Korea. He is widely believed to have masterminded a 2010 attack on a South Korean naval corvette, the Cheonan, that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
On Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Pompeo would meet Kim Yong Chol in New York amid rumors in Seoul and Washington that the envoy would also meet with Trump.
Analysts said such a meeting, while unusual since Kim Yong Chol is not a head of state, would be viewed as a reciprocal gesture from Trump, given that Pompeo has met twice with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
“I think it goes to show how fast this is all moving and that all conventions are being broken,” said Victor Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as a top Asia policy official in the George W. Bush administration. “When you do it this way instead of real, technical negotiations to get to a point of allowing this [summit] meeting — we’re doing it backward. So all these things that are supposed to be big, important steps to symbolize success at the end are put up front at the beginning without promises.”
Trump aides have emphasized that the president believes his personal commitment to the negotiations can help break a cycle of failure over U.S. negotiations to contain the North’s nuclear weapons program that extends back nearly three decades.
Speaking on “Fox & Friends” on Fox News on Tuesday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser, credited Trump’s letter last week canceling the summit for creating the “kinetic energy” needed to get the parties talking more seriously.
“Ever since then practically, North Korea, South Korea and the United States have been making very positive moves,” Conway said. “But let’s see what happens, as the president says. If he’s satisfied, then it will go forward.”
In a tweet confirming Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol, Trump said Tuesday that his administration has “put a great team together for our talks with North Korea. Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more.”
In explaining Trump’s decision to formally cancel the meeting last week, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing at the White House that a U.S. delegation had waited in Singapore for three days only to be stood up by their North Korean counterpart for a key planning meeting. The official emphasized that the lack of communication from Pyongyang was a key reason it was extremely unlikely that the summit could still happen on June 12, even though Trump left open the door to rescheduling in his letter to Kim Jong Un last week.
But Trump promptly undermined the administration official in a tweet over the weekend falsely accusing the New York Times of inventing the official as a source to cast doubt on the June 12 timeline. “WRONG AGAIN!” Trump wrote.
Analysts said they believed that planners in Singapore — a highly efficient and technically proficient city-state in Southeast Asia — could still pull off the logistics of the summitwith just two weeks remaining. They questioned, though, whether the United States and North Korea would be able come to general agreement ahead of the summit over the key question of Pyongyang’s commitment to a rapid plan to completely dismantle its nuclear program.
Sanders told reporters traveling with Trump to a campaign rally in Nashville Tuesday evening that “denuclearization has to be on the table, and the focus of the meeting,” for the summit to be reinstated now.
“And the president has to feel like we’re making progress on that front. And the only one that will make that determination will be the president,” she added.
“There’s a really big difference between what traditionalists say is necessary and what President Trump seems to think,” Klingner said of the summit planning. “But Trump is going in quite a different way. When people say he can’t get it all done in time, if you throw out the diplomatic playbook, perhaps it can be done — if Trump just sees himself as the negotiator in chief and, as he said in ‘Art of the Deal,’ goes with his gut and goes with his instinct.”
Fifield reported from Tokyo. John Wagner and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.