President Trump acknowledged Tuesday that there is a “substantial chance” a scheduled summit with Kim Jong Un could be canceled, as top aides prepared to travel to Singapore for a crucial planning meeting this weekend with North Korean officials.
Their trip comes less than two weeks after a North Korean delegation failed to show up for a similar planning meeting with U.S. officials in the island country, a failure that raised red flags at the White House, according to people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the process.
Members of the White House negotiating team, which includes Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin and deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel, intend to discuss with their North Korean counterparts the specific agenda and logistics for the June 12 summit in Singapore.
“I don’t want to waste a lot of time, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to waste a lot of time. So there’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office before a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th.”
The uncertainty over the planning coincides with recent hard-line rhetoric from Pyongyang that has led the White House to fear that Kim, after a burst of diplomatic outreach, is reverting to the regime’s usual antagonistic and belligerent posture to gain leverage in the talks or to lay the groundwork to pull out.
Trump suggested that Kim could be having second thoughts because he is taking a major risk in entering negotiations with global powers. Over the past two months, Kim has made three trips outside his country — two to China and one over the border to South Korea — for the first time since taking power in 2011.
“There are certain conditions we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions,” Trump said, though he did not offer details of what his administration is asking of Pyongyang.
“North Korea has a chance to be a great country,” he added. “It can’t be a great country under the circumstances they’re living in right now. I think they should seize the opportunity, and we’ll soon find out whether or not they want to do that.”
The North Koreans have sent signals to U.S. officials that Kim is skittish about logistical concerns, including ensuring that his plane would be able to access enough fuel for the 6,000-mile round trip flight and safeguarding his security while on the ground in Singapore, according to the people familiar with the deliberations.
Among other things, Kim purportedly is concerned that a trip so far from home could expose him to a military coup or other internal attempts to unseat him, the sources said.
During Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second meeting with Kim, earlier this month, he outlined his expectations for a fast and comprehensive denuclearization plan for the peninsula, said individuals familiar with the meeting. Kim, meanwhile, focused on logistical issues and lingering North Korean concerns about the long-term integrity of a security guarantee from the United States.
North Korean officials are mindful of the fate of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who was brutally killed by his own people in a Western-backed overthrow in 2011 after giving up his nuclear program eight years earlier. Statements in recent weeks from national security adviser John Bolton that he prefers the “Libya model” — a quick denuclearization plan — have exacerbated their fears.
In his remarks Tuesday, Trump attempted to reassure Kim that he would remain in power under any deal to relinquish North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
“I will guarantee his safety, yes,” Trump said. “He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hard-working and prosperous.”
Former U.S. government officials who have negotiated with North Korea under past administrations have warned that the Kim family regime is notoriously unreliable. They have suggested that the young dictator, thought to be in his early or mid-30s, is seeking to establish himself as a powerful global leader but has no intention of giving up his nuclear arsenal.
But Trump has rushed headlong into the summit, agreeing on the spot to a meeting after South Korean officials extended an offer from Kim during a visit to the White House in March. Kim’s summit with Moon last month at the Korean demilitarized zone separating the two countries appeared to go smoothly, setting the stage for the Trump-Kim meeting.
Behind the scenes, however, Trump aides have become increasingly concerned that the North Koreans are not serious about discussing denuclearization and that the president could be set up for failure.
Jean H. Lee, a North Korea specialist at the Wilson Center who previously worked in Pyongyang as a reporter for the Associated Press, said the Trump administration is beginning to face up to the unrealistic expectations the president has set.
“I wish all of this had been sorted out before Trump agreed,” Lee said. “For all this to be playing out publicly and at such a high level is unprecedented. The players themselves don’t know how this is going to play out.”
As he has before, Trump suggested that Pyongyang’s hard-line shift over the past week was a result of Kim’s second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Trump called a “world-class poker player.”
“Things changed after that meeting,” Trump said. “So I can’t say I’m happy about that.”
There is recent precedent for the North Koreans to back out of plans to talk with the United States and South Korea.
In February, Vice President Pence traveled to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, where he had agreed to a secret meeting with a North Korean delegation that included Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un. But the North Koreans pulled out of the meeting at the last moment.
Last week, North Korea scrapped planned talks with the South over objections to routine U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and a high-ranking Kim aide blasted Bolton, who had suggested that the North Koreans would be expected to fully relinquish their nuclear weapons program before receiving reciprocal benefits from the United States.
In his meeting with Trump, Moon pushed to keep the summit on track, stating he has “every confidence” that Trump could reach a deal with Kim that would formally end the Korean War and bring “peace and prosperity” to North Korea.
South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters traveling with Moon from Seoul that the summit was still “99.9 percent” likely to happen.
Moon told the reporters that he emphasized to White House officials that Kim remains committed to the diplomatic process and that he expects inter-Korean talks to resume after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises conclude next week.
At the State Department, Pompeo, who has visited Pyongyang twice, said U.S. officials are “working to make sure there’s a common understanding” of what is to be discussed at the summit.
“It could be that it comes right down to the end and doesn’t happen,” Pompeo said. “We’re preparing, continuing to lay the foundation for a successful meeting. I’m confident we’ll get there.”
Josh Dawsey, Philip Rucker, Anne Gearan and Greg Jaffe in Washington, and Anna Fifield in Tokyo, contributed to this report.