Trump signaled that a grand bargain to reverse decades of enmity is not on the table for his unprecedented meeting with Kim on Tuesday in Singapore, but the president sounded upbeat as he described the North Korean leader as sincere about remaking the future for his impoverished country.
“We would certainly like to see normalization, yes,” Trump said after two hours of White House meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
That would come after what Trump described as a diplomatic process that could include an agreement to safeguard Kim from the threat of ouster at the hands of the United States.
“I don’t think it will be one meeting,” Trump said.
Trump last year derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and vowed to destroy nuclear-armed North Korea if it threatened the United States or its allies, but he has recently spoken about Kim more positively as he has promoted the summit as a chance to strike a historic deal. On Thursday he confirmed rumors that an invitation to the White House could be in the offing for Kim, the third generation of his family to hold absolute rule in the isolated communist nation, sometimes called the Hermit Kingdom.
“I think he would look at it very favorably, so I think that could happen,” Trump said.
Skeptics, including many Republicans, have worried that Trump is giving up leverage simply by meeting with Kim, since doing so implies that the North Korean leader holds equal status with the U.S. leader.
An invitation to the White House, unthinkable only months ago, would go much further in conferring status as a global leader on a man who until this year had not traveled beyond his country’s borders since taking office in 2011.
The Trump administration pursued economic sanctions against North Korea under a “maximum pressure” campaign designed to force Kim to bargain over his nuclear arsenal.
Trump said Thursday that he has stopped using the “maximum pressure” phrase because “we are going into a friendly negotiation.”
If he starts using that phrase again after his talks in Singapore, it will be a sign that the discussion went badly, Trump told reporters, adding that a new round of sanctions against North Korea are in abeyance while the diplomacy plays out.
Earlier Thursday, Trump proclaimed himself ready for the summit, which is taking place with no precooked outcome and without the usual months or years of run-up meetings among lower-level aides. The Trump administration has scheduled and planned for the session over a span of three months.
“I think I’m very well prepared,” Trump told reporters at the start of his Oval Office meeting with Abe. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about the attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted his alarm.
“With ICBMs and nuclear warheads in the hands of North Korea, the situation is far too dangerous for seat of the pants negotiating,” Schumer wrote.
Trump lately has been playing down expectations for the summit, no longer talking about an immediate agreement to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
“I think it’s a process,” Trump said Thursday. “I think it’s not a one-meeting deal. It would be wonderful if it were.”
At the same time, Trump promised that the session will be “much more than a photo op.”
“This will be, at a minimum, we’ll start with perhaps a good relationship,” he said.
The summit is planned for one day, but Trump said Thursday that it remains an open question how long he will stay in Singapore.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later told reporters that Trump “will not stand for a bad deal,” and that the complete eradication of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and weapons program “is the only outcome that we will find acceptable.”
Sanctions on North Korea will stay in place until the North has verifiably given up its weapons of mass destruction, Pompeo said.
Asked whether the United States has narrowed the gap between how the United States understands the goal of “denuclearization” and how Kim defines that word, Pompeo replied succinctly, “yes.”
Would he explain how?
That question looms over the talks, since diplomats and others who have dealt with Kim or his father say they doubt he will ever entirely give up a program that has won him a place on the world stage that his economic or political power would not command.
Pompeo, who has met with Kim twice, waxed philosophical in explaining what he said he hopes is Kim’s rationale in entering a bargain to give up his weapons.
“He has indicated to me personally that he is prepared to denuclearize, that he understands the current model doesn’t work,” Pompeo said. “He understands that we can’t do it the way we’ve done it before, that this has to be big and bold and we have to agree to making major changes.”
One change will have to be that the negotiations can’t drag on “over years,” Pompeo said, although he gave no timeline.
Pompeo had a blunt answer when asked about comments from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that Kim had come to Trump “on his hands and knees,” after Trump had called off the summit last month. Trump reinstated it on June 1, after about a week in limbo, and after Kim sent him an oversized letter that Trump held up for the cameras.
“I know Rudy, and Rudy does not speak for the administration when it comes to this negotiation and this set of issues,” Pompeo said.
The insult implied in Giuliani’s comments could easily have been a pretext for Kim to walk away just days after the summit had been put back together. Pompeo said Giuliani spoke “in jest.”
Pompeo will visit Japan, South Korea and China after the Singapore summit to discuss the outcome, he said.
Abe’s main goal for Thursday’s hastily scheduled meeting was to warn Trump off any quick deal with North Korea that could shortchange Japanese interests. Japan has been directly menaced by North Korean missiles fired over its waters and land. It is seen as a primary target because of its decades-long security alliance with the United States and the presence of U.S. forces on its soil.
Abe also wants to ensure Trump takes Kim to task over Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Trump has previously promised to raise those cases, which are politically sensitive in Japan, and he made a point Thursday of mentioning the issue in public.
Abe’s precarious political position at home would worsen substantially if he were seen to have been complicit in a Trump arrangement with Kim that does not address the abductees.
The conservative Abe is worried that Trump may move to normalize relations with North Korea and could pull back from its military commitments to Japan and South Korea.
Trump has also refused to grant Japan an exemption from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, despite months of direct personal lobbying from Abe. Japan is also alarmed by the prospect of higher U.S. tariffs on imported automobiles.
Abe praised Trump’s “extraordinary leadership” on North Korea and told reporters that the two leaders had exchanged “candid” views. He stressed the importance of sticking to U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
“Japan and the United States are always together,” Abe said through an interpreter. “I strongly hope that this historic summit in Singapore be a historic success.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.