Donald Trump has laboured with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in to keep the highly anticipated US summit with North Korea on track after the president abruptly cast doubt that the June 12 meeting would come off.
Setting the stakes sky high, Mr Moon said “the fate and the future of the Korean Peninsula hinge” on the meeting.
The summit, planned for Singapore, offers a historic chance for peace on the peninsula — but also the risk of an epic diplomatic failure that would allow the North to revive and advance its nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Trump’s newfound hesitation appeared to reflect recent setbacks in efforts to bring about reconciliation between the two Koreas, as well as concern whether the self-proclaimed dealmaker can deliver a nuclear accord with the North’s Kim Jong Un.
In an extraordinary public airing of growing uncertainty, Mr Trump said “there’s a very substantial chance” the meeting will not happen as scheduled.
Seated in the Oval Office with Mr Moon, Mr Trump said Mr Kim had not met unspecified “conditions” for the summit.
However, the president also said he believed Mr Kim was “serious” about negotiations, and Mr Moon expressed “every confidence” in Mr Trump’s ability to hold the summit and bring about peace.
“I have no doubt that you will be able to… accomplish a historic feat that no one had been able to achieve in the decades past,” Mr Moon said.
US officials said preparations for the summit were still underway despite recent pessimism — and privately suggested there would be additional public manoeuvring as both sides seek to maximise their leverage.
Both parties to the talks are invested in holding the meeting, with Mr Kim seeing an opportunity for international legitimacy and Mr Trump the prospect of securing Korean stability — and perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize.
“This could be something that comes right to the end and doesn’t happen,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But he added that as of now, “we’re driving on.”
South Korea’s national security adviser put the chance of the summit taking place at 99.9%.
Mr Trump suggested that it could be delayed rather than canceled: “It may not work out for June 12, but there is a good chance that we’ll have the meeting.”
He did not detail the conditions he had laid out for Mr Kim but said if they are not met, “we won’t have the meeting.”
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Mr Trump was referring to a commitment to seriously discuss denuclearisation.
Scepticism about the North’s intentions have mounted in recent weeks after Mr Kim’s government pulled out of planned peace talks with the South last week, objecting to long-scheduled joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces.
The North also threatened to abandon the planned Mr Trump-Kim meeting over US insistence on rapidly denuclearising the peninsula, issuing a harshly worded statement that the White House dismissed as a negotiating ploy.
Mr Moon sought to project optimism after his meeting with Mr Trump.
His spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, told reporters that the two leaders agreed to do their best to ensure the meeting happens on June 12.
Mr Yoon said Mr Moon told Mr Trump that the North Korean leader was strongly committed to the meeting and the leaders agreed that any assistance to North Korea would come after complete denuclearisation.
High-level talks between the North and South would likely happen after June 25.
Mr Trump expressed suspicion that the North’s recent aggressive barbs were influenced by Mr Kim’s unannounced trip to China two weeks ago — his second in as many months.
Mr Trump said he had noticed “a little change” in Mr Kim’s attitude after the trip.
“I don’t like that,” he said.
The president added that he hoped Chinese President Xi Jinping was actually committed to the goal of denuclearising the Korean peninsula, calling him a “world-class poker player”.
Mr Trump said he was displeased by China’s softening of border enforcement measures against North Korea.
Mr Trump encouraged Mr Kim to focus on the opportunities offered by the meeting and to make a deal to abandon his nuclear programme, pledging not only to guarantee Mr Kim’s personal security but also predicting an economic revitalisation for the North.
“I will guarantee his safety, yes,” Mr Trump said, noting that promise was conditioned on an agreement to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.
Mr Trump said if such an agreement is reached, China, Japan and South Korea would invest large sums to “make North Korea great”.