President Donald Trump hopes to move beyond pleasantries next week in his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, officials said on Thursday, describing the follow-up talks as more intensive than an inaugural round last year in Singapore.
Even as he looks to convince Kim to abandon his nuclear program, however, Trump faces uncertainty about how willing the reclusive despot is to relinquish his stockpiles. A common definition of “denuclearization” doesn’t yet exist, the officials said. And Kim hasn’t committed to a timeline of any sort.
“I expect that there will be an ongoing process of give-and-take while we try to tease out exactly what is the full commitment,” a senior administration official said Thursday, previewing the summit anonymously to reporters.
“I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize, but the reason why we’re engaged in this is because we believe there’s a possibility that North Korea can make the choice to fully denuclearize,” the official went on. “And that’s why the President has assigned such a priority to engaging with them.”
The comments reflected the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s diplomatic gambit with North Korea, which he insists is proceeding apace even as intelligence officials say there is little to indicate Pyongyang will ever abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Trump has pointed to a recent absence of missile and nuclear testing as evidence of his diplomacy’s success. He says he is in no rush to end the diplomatic process, and on Wednesday indicated he would likely meet again with Kim after their talks next week in Vietnam.
Through it all, Trump has lauded the budding chemistry he enjoys with Kim, sparked by their first meeting in Singapore and maintained through effusive letters of praise over the past year.
In Hanoi, where the second summit will occur next week, Trump will again look to lay on the charm. He will meet one-on-one with Kim to start the talks, bantering through translators to set the tone for expanded meetings later on.
“President Trump is looking to – after really, in some respects, breaking the ice with Kim in June – to talk in more depth about the kind of future that North Korea could enjoy if it follows through on its commitment to final and full denuclearization,” one of the officials said.
The two men will also share a meal, though firmer details were still being negotiated with Kim’s emissaries.
The logistic details of the summit were only part of ongoing talks already underway in the Vietnamese capital, which was selected partly to illustrate the success story of the communist former US foe.
The President’s envoy on North Korea talks, Stephen Biegun, traveled to Hanoi this week to begin preparatory talks with high-ranking North Koreans on a joint declaration both leaders can sign, though officials said the discussions were ongoing.
“We are in the midst of negotiating on some issues and, as is often the case in these negotiations, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” a US official said on Thursday. “We will be closely engaged with the North Korean delegation right up until the President arrives for the summit next week.”
Though Trump has indicated he isn’t inclined to rush the process, other US officials have said they are looking for significant steps from North Korea during this week’s summit to prove the effort is worthwhile.
“I think we actually need to move very quickly in this process and I think we need to move in very big bites,” one of the administration officials told reporters on Thursday. “So we are not looking to have incremental steps as a key driver of this process.”
Trump is hoping to advance four priorities in his summit meeting with Kim, all based on the joint declaration he signed with Kim in Singapore: transforming relations between the US and North Korea; establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula; denuclearization; and the return of killed-in-action and missing-in-action Americans from the Korean War.
Despite some concerns among US officials and outside observers, a withdrawal of US troops from South Korea is not under consideration ahead of Trump’s summit, the senior administration officials said.
The matter “is not the subject of discussions” with the North Koreans, one official said. A second official said a troop withdrawal “is not really an operative subject right now.”