WASHINGTON — While President Trump hailed the prospects of an unprecedented meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, aides began making plans Friday — and suggesting the conference won’t happen unless Kim takes steps toward eliminating nuclear weapons.
“The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea” toward “denuclearizing,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.
Officials are also discussing a date and a location for a Trump-Kim meeting that, when announced suddenly on Thursday night, did not carry pre-conditions.
That may now be changing.
“We’ve accepted the invitation to talk based on them following through with concrete actions on the promises that they’ve made,” Sanders said.
After the stunning announcement that Trump would agree to speak with the nuclear-armed leader he once derided as “Rocket Man,” the president tweeted: “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
The White House said no meeting would take place between the U.S. and North Korea without “concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.” (March 9) AP
Kim himself has said publicly he will never give up his nuclear weapons. But, in relaying Kim’s invitation to Trump for a meeting, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong said he told the president that the North Korean dictator “said he is committed to denuclearization.”
As American and Korean officials worked on the details, governments across the globe began pondering the impact of a Trump-Kim meeting.
While potential rewards down the road could be historic — some kind of an agreement in which North Korea agrees to give up nuclear weapons — analysts said there are also significant risks for further enmity between two nuclear-armed nations that have threatened each other.
“What could go wrong?” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator for Republican and Democratic presidents. “Everything.”
Trump has never ruled out the possible use of military force to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but nor has he ever shut the door on direct talks.
In preparing for a meeting with Kim, Trump has spoken by phone in recent days with two key players in the region, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China President Xi Jinping, the White House said.
Trump told Abe that he hopes Kim’s invitation “signals his desire to give the North Korean people a brighter future,” said a White House statement, a comment echoed in a readout of the Xi call.
Trump’s sudden and shocking decision to agree to meet with Kim seemed to catch many of his aides by surprise. Hours before the announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that “we are a long ways from negotiations” with North Korea.
More: Trump agrees to first-ever meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un
More: North Korea-U.S. talks: Why make the offer now, what does North Korea want in return?
On Friday, Tillerson drew a distinction between “talks” and “negotiations,” said Trump would engage in talks with Kim. “We’re a long way from negotiations,” Tillerson said, “we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.”
White House officials said the Trump-Kim session, if it happens, would be more of a preliminary meeting than a negotiating session. They said sanctions will remain in place and that Trump would continue to pressure China and other countries to stop doing business with North Korea, a tactic they believe has prompted Kim to reach out.
“What we know is that the maximum-pressure campaign has clearly been effective,” Sanders said. “We know that it has put a tremendous amount of pressure on North Korea.”
Trump agreed to the meeting after speaking late Thursday with Chung, the South Korean national security adviser, who extended the invitation from Kim. In a highly unusual scene, Chung, who met with the North Korean leader earlier this week, announced the Trump-Kim meeting from the West Wing driveway.
In addition to denuclearization, which he did not define, Chung said that Kim also “pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue.”
Some foreign policy analysts noted the improvisational nature of the announcement; a few hours before the news broke, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to tell reporters that South Korea would soon be making a major announcement.
Normally before a summit of this magnitude, diplomats would hash out areas of dispute and reach consensus on at least a few items. That way, the leaders themselves can meet to nail down final details and announce some sort of agreement.
This approach, having leaders meet ahead of difficult negotiations, is something of a gamble, analysts said.
Generations of communist leaders of North Korea — Kim, his father, and grandfather — have long sought a meeting with a U.S. president, seeing it as way they can claim to be on par with a superpower.
“One risk is that Kim receives a huge boost to his prestige and legitimacy without anything expected of him in return,” said Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Kahl, a former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, also said that Trump has a reputation for being unprepared, prone to flattery and manipulation by his hosts, and all too willing to throw allies “under the bus.”
“So,” he said, “agreeing to a summit without a clear process, a plan, and a set of preliminary talks that set the stage for success — and then sending Trump into this environment — is a huge gamble.”
Trump sprung the idea of a North Korea meeting at a time when Trump is reportedly at odds with members of staff. A top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, announced his resignation just days after Trump announced he would impose tariffs on aluminum and steel.
There are also reports, denied by Trump and others, that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is on his way out, even with the Kim meeting looming.
Trump is also dealing with fallout from a special counsel investigation of Russian election activities, as well as a lawsuit by a adult firm star who claims to have had an affair with him.
In Congress, key lawmakers offered cautious support for the prospects of a U.S.-North Korea meeting, while also warning against any softening of U.S. policy and against any overly optimistic expectations.
“Remember, North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time” to further develop their nuclear weapons programs, said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. “We’ve got to break this cycle.”
Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said two words would key as the administration planned for the meeting: “skepticism and caution.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he believes Trump’s hard line against North Korea — including the threat of military action — has forced Kim Jong Un to the table. But he warned the North Korean dictator against trying to “play” Trump.
“If you do that, it will be the end of you – and your regime,” Graham said.
Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the nature of “combustible personas” like Trump and Kim makes any meeting risky and unpredictable.
“No matter how scripted the summit you have a potentially powerful and deadly perfect storm,” he said: “Two thin-skinned leaders with huge egos; no trust or confidence; and excruciatingly tough issues out of which you need to produce a win-win situation.”
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