WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump met South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday amid concerns that Trump’s planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization next month might fall apart.
Moon’s White House visit was intended to be a fine-tuning of the U.S. and South Korean strategy for dealing with Kim at what would be the first-ever meeting between U.S. and North Korean presidents.
But the White House was caught off-guard when, in a dramatic change of tone, North Korea last week condemned the latest U.S.-South Korean air combat drills, suspended North-South talks and threw into doubt the summit with Trump if Pyongyang was pushed toward “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
Moon and Trump began their meeting shortly after noon EDT (1600 GMT). They also were to have a working lunch.
Before seeing Trump, Moon met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton and urged them to speed preparations for the Trump-Kim summit.
“We South Korean people … expect much from you. Please take care of us,” Moon said, according to a South Korean government statement, in an apparent joke that nevertheless signaled the importance he places on the Trump-Kim summit.
A statement from the South Korean government said Moon sought to counter doubts about Pyongyang’s intentions given its history of making promises and backtracking in international talks.
“… This is the first time ever that ‘complete denuclearization’ has been officially pronounced and the negotiation will be conducted with North Korea’s top leader who wishes for security of the regime and economic progress, which makes it a different level from previous negotiations,” Moon said, according to a government readout.
Trump has insisted he remains committed to the June 12 summit in Singapore but privately has wondered whether North Korea is serious about denuclearizing, a senior U.S. official said.
Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News Radio the United States remains hopeful and will proceed with plans for the summit.
“But let me very clear,” he said, “nothing has changed about the policy of the United States of America. There have been no concessions offered and none given.”
Trump’s aides are looking to Moon to help determine whether Kim is taking a harder line against denuclearization than South Korea had previously communicated to them, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other U.S. officials have privately expressed concern that Moon, eager to make progress with the North, may have overstated Kim’s willingness to negotiate in good faith over the dismantling of his nuclear arsenal.
“99.9 PERCENT CHANCE”
Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters en route to Washington he believed there was “a 99.9 percent chance” that the Trump-Kim summit would go ahead, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
“But we’re just preparing for many different possibilities,” he was quoted as saying.
The White House Communications Agency, a military unit assigned to the president, produced a commemorative coin featuring likenesses of Trump and Kim, who is referred to as “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer urged the White House to take Kim off of it.
Earlier on Tuesday, about two dozen journalists from Western and Chinese news organizations arrived in North Korea to witness the planned closure of its nuclear test site, an indication that the shutdown will go ahead despite renewed diplomatic uncertainty.
North Korea’s announcement that it would dismantle the Punggye-ri test site has been seen as an encouraging political gesture ahead of the planned summit with Trump.
Two visits by Pompeo in the past two months have apparently failed to yield much clarity on Kim’s intentions. Pompeo planned to be at the White House on Tuesday for the meetings with Moon.
Some in the U.S. government worry that Moon may be prepared to accept a less-stringent version of North Korean denuclearization than Washington wants and could be open to faster sanctions relief for Pyongyang, the officials said.
Most analysts say it is unrealistic to believe North Korea will agree to complete abandonment of its nuclear program, which Kim sees as crucial to his survival in power.
North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons has long created tension on the peninsula and antagonism with the United States. Tensions escalated last year as Pyongyang tested missiles believed capable of hitting the United States. Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary and derided Kim as “little rocket man” before talk of the Trump-Kim summit eased the pressure.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in Seoul; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott