Washington/Seoul: The leaders of North and South Korea met for two hours on Saturday to discuss the cancelled summit with Donald Trump, less than a day after the US leader signalled the meeting may be back on citing “very productive" talks between the two countries.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spent two hours together at the truce village of Panmunjom, and had a candid discussion about the potential US-Korean meeting, Moon’s office said in text message. Moon will brief the media on the surprise meeting at 10 am on Sunday, his office said.
Trump on Friday night said the historic June summit with Kim could go ahead following talks between the two countries.
“We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th, and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date," Trump said in a tweet.
Trump abruptly cancelled the planned summit in a letter to Kim on Thursday — and then pivoted a day later. “We are talking to them now," he told reporters in Washington earlier Friday, saying the summit might proceed and “it could even be the 12th."
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday, that “we are working on plans going forward." While there are always “high points and low points" in diplomacy, she said, “we hope that the meeting will go forward at some point."
The comments reflected a broadly shared perception inside the White House and State Department that the two leaders still want to get together and there will be a meeting eventually. “We would like to do it," Trump said, and “they very much like to do it."
Less than a year after the two leaders traded threats of nuclear war, the back-and-forth over whether the summit will even happen reflects both Trump’s lead-from-the-gut style of decision-making and North Korea’s long-standing penchant for unpredictable behaviour.
US claims successes
US officials argue that the administration has already won a great deal from North Korea, including a moratorium on missile testing and the release of three American prisoners, without giving up anything in return. A White House-led advance team is heading to Singapore this weekend as previously planned to deal with the logistics of a potential summit, Politico reported.
But the latest developments also exemplified how quickly aspirations for successful talks between North Korea and the US -- which remain technically at war -- can rise and fall.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate committee on Thursday that US negotiators had been getting only “dial tones" when they tried calling their North Korean counterparts in recent days, which coincided with increasingly sharp rhetoric from Pyongyang about US intentions. Trump cited North Korea’s “tremendous anger and open hostility" as his reason for cancelling the summit.
At the same time, it also was increasingly clear that the administration’s goal of “total denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula was interpreted differently in North Korea, which analysts say is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear capabilities and especially not in short order, as the US has demanded.
“We weren’t getting the right signals previously, so hopefully we will in the future," Nauert said. “We didn’t want to go to a meeting just for the sake of going to a meeting. There had to be something to come out of it."
‘Everyone plays games’
Trump appeared to take the turbulence in stride. Asked Friday if North Korea was playing games ahead of the summit, the president responded, “Everyone plays games."
Although he trumpeted America’s “massive and powerful" nuclear arsenal in his letter cancelling the summit, Trump also thanked Kim for the release of the detainees, described the “wonderful dialogue" they were developing and left open the door for reconciliation. North Korea responded in kind, with First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan saying that his country still wanted to pursue peace and said it would give Washington time to reconsider talks.
“The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse," First Vice Foreign Minister Kim said in a statement carried Friday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve problem regardless of ways at any time."
According to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking, Trump’s letter was intended only to convey his decision against going ahead with the summit on 12 June — not to rule out a meeting in the future. The person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, said the “maximum pressure" campaign to strangle North Korea’s economy is working, and Kim’s regime will have to come to the table eventually.
China’s Vice President Wang Qishan found encouragement in the continuing exchanges between the US and North Korea.
“Both sides still leave some maneuver for a discussion," Wang said Friday on a panel at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia. “So I’m confident that peace and security on the Korean peninsula can be maintained. And it’s between North Korea and the US right now. And a summit is needed to achieve a breakthrough."
At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that “the diplomats are still at work on the summit" but declined to say whether he thought the event would take place on 12 June. He did say that the leaders of the two nations have had positive interactions. “I’ll let them talk all they want and then I’ll hope and pray the diplomats pull it off," he said.