United States President Donald Trump has taken a softer tone. Photo: AFP/Oliver Contreras/Pool via CNP
United States President Donald Trump has taken a softer tone. Photo: AFP/Oliver Contreras/Pool via CNP

US President Donald Trump, during a meeting with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, cast doubt over whether a summit with Kim Jong-un will take place as scheduled in Singapore in June, but appeared confident the meeting would eventually take place.

Speaking before TV cameras on the sidelines of closed-door talks with Moon, Trump was in carrot-dangling, rather than stick-hefting mode.

Focusing on the benefits North Korea and Kim himself would receive for denuclearization, Trump praised North Korea for the good will it has shown thus far. Tellingly, he made no threats toward the regime, and appeared to draw back from a long-held US demand: That North Korea disarmament must be “CVID” – complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament.

The US president was speaking in the wake of harsh North Korean criticism of his National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Bolton has vocally demanded that North Korea follow the Libyan model of giving up its – then, incomplete – nuclear arms program. North Korean state media has excoriated that benchmark, given the subsequent bloody fate of Libya’s Gadafi regime.

Last week, expressing anger over Bolton’s remarks, the North indicated it might not attend the summit, but also said, via state media, “if the Trump administration takes an approach to [North Korea]-US summit with sincerity for improved relations, it will receive a deserved response from us.”

The summit has been set for June 12 in Singapore.

Moon had flown into Washington with the mission of encouraging Trump to press ahead with his planned summit, at a time when some US news media, citing unnamed US officials, reported that members of the administration were concerned that Moon may have misled Trump as to Kim’s real intentions.

Will North Korea-US summit go ahead?

Trump has always made clear that the summit must focus on North Korean denuclearization, but also revealed that the US has pre-conditions. “There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions,” he said. “And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”

Regarding the summit, set for June 12 in Singapore, he said: “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later. Maybe it will happen at a different time … But we’re talking right now.”

A day earlier, Moon’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, who has held talks with Kim in Pyongyang, told reporters: “We believe there is a 99.9% chance the North Korea-US summit will be held as scheduled,” according to Yonhap newswire.

And Trump, who has made North Korean denuclearization his foremost foreign policy priority, seemed convinced that Kim is willing to talk, and that talks will bear fruit. “There’s a chance that it will work out … there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out,” Trump said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th. But there’s a good chance that we’ll have the meeting.”

He also praised his administration’s newly convivial relationship with North Korea, which has announced, and stuck to, a unilateral missile and nuclear test moratorium, and has released three US hostages.

“For a short period of time, we’ve been dealing with North Korea, and it’s been a, you know, good experience. We have three hostages back,” he said. “It’s been a relationship that seems to be working, and we’ll see how long it continues to work. Hopefully it’s going to work for a long time.”

Trump backs away from CVID

Trump was speaking as journalists from China, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the US were gathering in North Korea, at Pyongyang’s invitation, to witness the state decommission its underground nuclear weapons test site. It will involve the collapsing of tunnels and the dismantling of other facilities. The journalists are expected to arrive at the site on Thursday.

The president appeared to admit that the long-stated US goal of CVID – complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament – may not be feasible. “It would certainly be better if it were all in one,” he said. “Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself.” He continued: “You know, you do have some physical reasons that it may not be able to do exactly that.”

Experts have suggested that it will be hugely invasive, if not unfeasible, to scour the entire country for nuclear warheads – which may be small enough to fit under an office desk – and that it is unrealistic to expect North Korea’s thousands of nuclear scientists to depart their country.

Given questions hanging over the credibility of a security guarantee for the North Korean state and for Kim himself, Trump was effusive. “I will guarantee his safety. Yes, we will guarantee his safety. And we’ve talked about that from the beginning. He will be safe. He will be happy,” he said.

Previously, US officials have spoken of North Korean denuclearizing and then receiving benefits; North Korean seeks a phased program. Speaking of the potential benefits North Korea would receive, Trump said: “His country will be rich. His country will be hardworking and very prosperous. They’re very great people. They’re hardworking, great people.”

Moon Chung-in, a senior adviser to President Moon, has told CNN that North Koreans want a McDonalds and a Trump Tower.

Trump has himself invested massive political capital in his summit with Kim – something none of his predecessors ever attempted. But he also recognized that a meeting with a sitting US president is an historic step for Kim.

“He has a chance to do something that maybe has never been done before. And I think … if you look 25 years into the future, 50 years into the future, he will be able to look back and be very proud of what he did for North Korea and, actually, for the world,” Trump said.

South Korean President Moon, in brief remarks, also made clear that the precedent-setting meeting between the two leaders offered the chance of the kind of breakthrough that has eluded all parties for decades.

“I don’t think there will be positive developments in history if we just assume that because it all failed in the past, it will fail again,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “There have been many agreements between the United States and North Korea previously, but this will be the first time that there will be an agreement between the leaders.”

Some experts have suggested that a postponement of the June summit would be a wise idea, giving both sides more time to prepare their positions in details.

But two sources who recently returned from North Korea and China, respectively, told Asia Times that they are convinced that the summit has been well planned. Speaking at a closed-door briefing last week, one stated his belief that ex-CIA chief and current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Pyongyang on more occasions than his two publicly announced trips.

Another expert suggested that with the summit date getting closer, and with North Korea playing hardball, Trump had adopted a softer, more realistic stance toward North Korea.

“I think Trump was happy to play the [Libyan model] as an impossible condition, as it was a pressure point on North Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute in Seoul. “But they called Trump’s bluff, saying they are willing to cancel the summit, so it looks like now he has backed off, and is being reasonable.”

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