U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he will meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un as originally scheduled on June 12 for a historic summit after extraordinary Oval Office talks with a top envoy from Pyongyang.
After more than an hour of discussion with Kim Yong Chol, Trump told reporters that denuclearization—and a formal end to the decades-old Korean war—would be on the table in Singapore.
But the U.S. president warned that he did not expect to immediately sign a deal to bring a halt to the reclusive regime’s nuclear program. “I never said it goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process, but the relationships are building and that’s very positive,” he said, after waving farewell to the North Korean leader’s right-hand man.
The Korean War has been largely frozen since an armistice ended hostilities, but not the underlying conflict, in 1953. Since then, there have been occasional clashes on the divided peninsula. “We talked about ending the war,” Trump said.
“Historically it’s very important, but we’ll see. We did discuss that, the ending of the Korean War. Can you believe we’re talking about the ending of the Korean War?”
Washington is determined that Kim should agree to what U.S. officials call the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental missile programs. Kim says he is committed to “denuclearization” in some form, but he is expected to demand security guarantees in return.
Most expert observers are skeptical that even an unprecedented summit between the two leaders can lead to a rapid breakthrough, and Trump admitted it would be a long and difficult process. “We’re not going to go in and sign something on June 12. We never were. I told him today, ‘Take your time’,” he said, adding nevertheless that he expects “a really positive result in the end.”
Kim Yong Chol, the most senior North Korean to visit the United States in 18 years, spent almost 90 minutes in the Oval Office. Afterwards, Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walked the North’s small delegation to their cars, smiling and shaking hands in front of the media before the motorcade pulled away.
North Korean officials said Kim Yong Chol was expected to return to Pyongyang shortly. Meanwhile, discussions between U.S. and North Korean officials continue in Singapore and in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
On Thursday, Kim Jong-Un told Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that his commitment to denuclearization remains “unchanged and consistent and fixed,” but experts warn he will seek concessions from Washington. In addition to an end to the war, he is likely to want international recognition as well as guarantees against any strike by the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, however, said Saturday that the presence of American troops in South Korea is not “on the table” at the Trump-Kim summit.
Pyongyang has insisted that it needs nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. invasion, and has offered to negotiate over them in exchange for such guarantees in the past. For the North, denuclearization has long been code for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula and the end of its nuclear umbrella over the South—something unthinkable in Washington. But it remains to be seen if either side has changed its position in the whirlwind diplomacy of the last few weeks.
As expected, Kim Yong Chol handed Trump a letter from Kim that may clear up some of the questions. The U.S. leader said the missive was “very nice”—but then admitted he had not yet read it. An aide later confirmed he did after the talks.
It came only a week after Trump threatened to consign the entire process to history, abruptly cancelling the summit in a sharply worded letter, only to revive preparations shortly afterwards. Trump said that, after Friday’s talks, the parties are “totally over that and now we’re going to deal and we’re going to really start a process.”
Since the short-lived boycott threat, diplomats from both countries have conducted an intense flurry of talks, culminating this week when Pompeo sat down in New York with Kim’s envoy.
Pompeo said on Thursday that, after what have now been two meetings with Kim Jong-Un and three with Kim Yong Chol, he believes the North is at least ready to consider addressing U.S. demands for denuclearization. “I believe they are contemplating a path forward. They can make a strategic shift. One that their country has not been prepared to make before. This will obviously be their decision,” he said.
There has also been a recent rapprochement on the Korean peninsula, with the two Koreas holding high-level talks on Friday at the border truce village of Panmunjom. The meeting followed two landmark summits between the leaders of North and South Korea in the last five weeks.
Seoul welcomed Trump’s meeting with Kim Yong Chol at the White House. “The delivery of a letter from Chairman Kim Jong-Un to President Trump has apparently broadened and consolidated the road to the North Korea-U.S. summit,” said Kim Eui-gyeom, spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House. “We will calmly, and with expectation, watch the historic meeting in Singapore.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meanwhile said his country “is determined to make utmost efforts so that it will be a historic summit,” according to the Kyodo news agency.