Washington — US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday there was a “substantial chance” his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would not take place as planned on June 12 amid concerns that Kim was not committed to denuclearisation.
Trump raised doubts about the Singapore summit in talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who came to Washington to urge Trump not to let a rare opportunity with reclusive North Korea get away.
If the summit is called off or fails, it would be a major blow to what Trump supporters hope will be the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency, and a huge disappointment for Trump.
“There’s a very substantial chance … it won’t work out. And that’s OK,” Trump said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12. But there is a good chance that we’ll have the meeting.”
Trump said whether the meeting will be held as scheduled will be determined “pretty soon”. “North Korea has a chance to be a great country and I think they should seize the opportunity,” he said.
Trump’s Oval Office remarks were the strongest sign from him yet about the possibility of a delay or cancellation of what would be the first-ever summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea.
It was unclear whether Trump was truly backing away from a summit that he is eager to hold or whether he was strategically coaxing North Korea to the table after decades of tension on the Korean peninsula and antagonism with Washington over its nuclear weapons programme.
“Trump doesn’t want to look like he wants this summit more than Kim does,” said Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s a smart move to say that he is willing to postpone. But to be credible, the president really has to be willing to walk away and I’m not sure he is.”
Moon keen for summit
Aides said Trump has privately been wondering whether Kim is serious about the summit after an abrupt change in tone last week from North Korea, which suggested the meeting could be cancelled if it was pushed towards “unilateral nuclear abandonment”.
Trump heaped praise on Moon as an “extremely competent” leader despite some concerns voiced by US officials that Moon might be too willing to compromise with Kim.
Trump on Tuesday reiterated comments from last week, saying Kim’s safety would be guaranteed and his country would be rich if he denuclearised.
But he said there are certain conditions that must be met and if North Korea refuses, the meeting will not take place. He said he would like a deal to commit North Korea to denuclearise over a “short period of time”.
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 signalled 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 denuclearisation’ 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 reiterated his suggestion that Kim’s recent meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping had influenced Kim to harden his stance ahead of the summit.
The Trump administration is at odds with Beijing over trade. Trump on Monday urged China, North Korea’s main trading partner, to maintain tight sanctions, tweeting that “the word is that recently the Border has become much more porous.”