World News

Trump Says North Korea Summit May Be Rescheduled

Posted May 25, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that the White House was back in touch with North Korea and that the two sides might reschedule his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, a startling reversal that revealed not only Trump’s improvisational approach to diplomacy but also deep divisions among his advisers about the risks of going ahead.

Twenty-four hours after announcing that he was calling off the meeting in a letter to Kim, the North’s leader, Trump told reporters that he and Kim might yet meet in Singapore on June 12.

Before boarding Marine One on his way to deliver a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy, Trump said he welcomed a conciliatory statement issued by North Korea in response to his announcement Thursday. North Korea, it said, was “willing to sit down with the United States any time, in any format, to resolve the problems” and urged the president to reconsider.

“It was a very nice statement they put out,” Trump said. “We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it. We’ll see what happens.”

Not all of the members of the president’s national security team share his enthusiasm. While Trump’s advisers recognize his determination to make history — and the delight he has taken in the suggestion of supporters that he could win the Nobel Peace Prize — they differ sharply on what he should insist on getting from a meeting with Kim.

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, whose briefing of Trump on Pyongyang’s latest statements Wednesday evening laid the groundwork for the president’s decision to pull out the next day, believes that North Korea’s statement gave no more indication than a more hostile statement issued last week that it was willing to give up its nuclear arsenal, as Trump has insisted.

Bolton argued before joining the administration in April that the president should use a meeting only to tell North Korea to dismantle and deliver all of its nuclear weapons and equipment, saying that only then would the United States discuss easing sanctions and participating in North Korea’s economic development.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not publicly said what North Korea would have to give up, but he has said he favors a diplomatic solution. Mattis appears to be as interested in starting a negotiating process, even if disarmament takes years to accomplish, because it would avert a military conflict. On Friday, he cheered the news that the meeting was potentially back on track.

And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who like Bolton brought hard-line views to his new position, has become a staunch supporter of a summit meeting, people who have spoken to him said, and in recent days has sounded more flexible about the terms and timetable of disarmament. He has twice met with Kim on trips to Pyongyang to make arrangements for the Singapore meeting.

As with so many issues involving this president, the views of his aides often have little effect on what he actually says. On Thursday, for example, a senior White House official told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.

On Friday, Trump said, “It could even be the 12th.”

Later Friday, the president reinforced that possibility, saying on Twitter that if the meeting were rescheduled, it would “likely remain” on that day, “and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date.”

“We are having very productive talks with North Korea,” he said.

The president brushed off concerns raised privately by his staff and publicly by his allies and adversaries that Kim was playing him. “Everybody plays games,” he told a reporter. “You know that.”

The White House still plans to send an advance team to Singapore over the Memorial Day weekend to work out details for a meeting between the two leaders, according to a person briefed on the matter. A similar team waited in Singapore for three days last week, only to be stood up by the North Koreans — a factor cited by officials in judging that North Korea was not serious about the negotiation. The best strategy now, some argue, would be to hold off on a meeting, tighten the economic vise on the North and wait for Kim to come back to the table under more acceptable terms. On Thursday, Trump appeared to have heeded that advice.

Bolton, several officials said, is not trying to maneuver against a meeting, in part because he knows it is important to Trump. But his reference late last month to Libya as a model for the disarmament of North Korea proved extremely destabilizing to the preparations for the meeting.

The North Koreans responded angrily, saying they had no intention of ending up like Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his weapons in 2003 and 2004, only to be killed by his own people less than a decade later in a popular uprising that was aided by a NATO-led bombing campaign.

Pompeo, by contrast, has sounded more conciliatory toward North Korea than he had in the past — and closer to the position Trump began articulating before Thursday, when he sent his “Dear Mr. Chairman” letter to Kim. Twice this week, Trump opened the door to a phased denuclearization of North Korea, saying that it might not be possible for the North to dismantle its entire nuclear program in a single step.

Asked at a hearing by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., whether he believed any deal must include an agreement that North Korea end the production and enrichment of uranium and plutonium for military programs, Pompeo answered, “Yes.”

But he added: “I have to tell you, I’ve had discussions with Chairman Kim personally. There have been other discussions. I am going to reserve some space for us to be able to conduct these discussions outside of the public sphere.”

“It’s important for our eventual ability to achieve the outcomes that I think everyone in this room hopes we can achieve,” he said.

Pressed on other steps the North would have to take, Pompeo fell back on the line, “That is certainly our objective, Senator.”

By contrast, Pompeo gave a hard-hitting speech about Iran this week, in which he laid out a series of demands, including that it abandon its nuclear work “in perpetuity” and that it “stop uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing,” the two pathways to a bomb.

Pompeo’s change in tone about North Korea seemed to reflect his change in job title. When he was still director of the CIA he would often lay out, in declarative terms, North Korean activities that the United States could not tolerate — from nuclear weapons development to missile programs to biological weapons stockpiles.

But now, as secretary of state, he faces a different task. He must actually conduct whatever negotiations would take place before and after Trump and Kim meet — if they meet. And that puts enormous pressure on him to achieve a more comprehensive disarmament than his predecessor in the Obama administration, John Kerry, extracted from the Iranians.

Trump and Kim have one thing in common: They both seem of two minds about the wisdom of the meeting. Trump accepted Kim’s invitation to meet immediately upon hearing about it from a South Korean delegation, but he has been rived with second thoughts since, worrying that he could be politically embarrassed if he gets little out of it. Even in his letter canceling the meeting Thursday, he left the door open to resumption.

Kim sought the meeting, knowing the prestige he would gain by being the first North Korean leader to sit down with a U.S. president. But presumably he allowed the statements on the state-run news service early this year that North Korea would not give up its nuclear weapons for economic aid — contrary to what he seemed to say to his South Korean and U.S. interlocutors.

Now the two men have one more shot at making this summit meeting come together — and the sign will be if their staffs actually manage to meet, in Singapore, to work out logistics in coming days.