Nation & World

Trump-Kim summit: Wide gaps remain as two leaders prepare to start historic talks

A journalist reads a local newspaper showing an article on the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un near St. Regis hotel in Singapore June 11, 2018.  REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A journalist reads a local newspaper showing an article on the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un near St. Regis hotel in Singapore June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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SINGAPORE - President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are on the verge of making history with a one-on-one meeting to size each other up and start discussions that could open the door to negotiations on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The two leaders are due to meet Tuesday at 9 a.m. (9 p.m. Monday Eastern time) at a secluded island resort off the coast of Singapore. After an initial greeting, they will head into a private meeting, accompanied only by interpreters.

Though squadrons of administration officials have been preparing for this encounter for months, Trump was building up anticipation ahead of the 45-minute meeting, which will be potentially improvisational, followed by a more formal bilateral meeting that will be joined by aides. The U.S. side is expected to include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

“Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly....but in the end, that doesn’t matter,” Trump tweeted before dawn in Singapore. “We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen!”

The stakes are extremely high. The United States is seeking the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, a nation that possesses dozens of nuclear weapons, including some capable of striking the U.S. mainland. Kim wants an end to sanctions, normalized relations with the United States and a dramatic reduction in the U.S. military presence in the region. Kim is about to attain one of his main goals that has long eluded him: a level of international recognition that is automatically signified by a meeting with the U.S. president.

But even as the historic summit was less than an hour away, it was unclear whether the president and the dictator could realistically reach any concrete agreements in just one day of talks.

Wide gaps remain between the North Korean and U.S. interpretations of what verification means. And the United States is insisting that it would not ease sanctions until North Korea’s denuclearization was complete. But Pompeo told reporters that the administration is prepared to provide security assurances unlike any that previous administrations have offered.

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Trump, maintaining his early-morning Twitter habit even on the other side of the world, apparently woke up exuding confidence that the summit would be productive and would show up critics who carped that he is unprepared for rigorous talks on nuclear weapons.

“The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers,” he tweeted. “We have our hostages, testing, research and all missle launches have stoped, and these pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say! We will be fine!”

Trump and his team vowed Monday that the United States would not repeat past missteps in negotiating with the rogue, nuclear-armed nation.

“The United States has been fooled before - there’s no doubt about it,” Pompeo told reporters as the two sides raced to finalize summit details.

“Many presidents previously have signed off on a piece of paper only to find the North Koreans didn’t promise what we thought they had or actually reneged on their promises,” he added. “Despite any past flimsy agreements, the president will ensure no potential agreement fails to adequately address the North Korean threat.”

On his final day before meeting Kim, Trump sought to consolidate support from key allies, speaking by phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have been in close coordination with the White House for months.

Pompeo pronounced Trump well prepared for the meeting, emphasizing that the president was determined not to reward Kim until the North had taken concrete steps toward curbing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“The president has made very clear that until the time we get the outcome we’re demanding, economic relief will not be provided,” Pompeo said. “That’s different. There’s always been the hypothesis that somewhere along the way America would take its foot off. We will not do that.”

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Sanctions will “remain until they have verifiably eliminated” the nuclear program, he said. “If it does not move in the right direction, those measures will increase.”

But in a sign that Trump is counting on developing a personal rapport with Kim to help bridge differences, aides said that, after their initial greeting, the two leaders would meet in private, joined only by their interpreters, for 45 minutes.

The private meeting represents a risky attempt by Trump to quickly size up Kim’s intentions based on their personal interactions, which the president said two days ago would guide how he approaches the negotiations. Trump said that much of their discussions could change on the “spur of the moment” and that a one-on-one conversation would offer the president an opportunity to eschew talking points in favor of his own improvisation.

Analysts have warned that Trump could wind up offering unwise concessions to Kim, but aides defended the approach by suggesting that a direct conversation would help develop trust.

“There are only two people that can make decisions of this magnitude, and those two people will be sitting in a room tomorrow,” Pompeo said.

Earlier in the day, a team of U.S. negotiators arrived at the Ritz-Carlton hotel to meet with their North Korean counterparts to nail down final details for the summit, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

Led by Sung Kim, a longtime State Department diplomat who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, the American team held at least five sessions with the Pyongyang delegation over the past two weeks in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

But the two sides reportedly have struggled to close the gap on the crucial question of North Korea’s intentions on denuclearization. Sung Kim was accompanied by Randall Schriver, an assistant secretary for Asia at the Pentagon, and Allison Hooker, the National Security Council director for Korea.

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The group did not respond to shouted questions as members entered the hotel past a phalanx of journalists. The North Korean delegation, which was led by Choe Son Hui, the vice foreign minister, also was mum as it arrived a few minutes later.

“Substantive and detailed meetings in #Singapore today,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

Pompeo insisted that the U.S. side has not changed its demands that North Korea agree to a verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its weapons programs.

At the same time, however, he also referred to a goal of “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula,” a phrase that Pyongyang has traditionally taken to mean that the United States would end its “hostile policy” by withdrawing troops based in the region and removing its nuclear security umbrella over South Korea and Japan.

“We’re prepared to take action to provide them certainty and comfort that denuclearization is not something that ends badly for them,” Pompeo said. “Just the opposite: It will lead to a brighter and better future for the North Korean people.”

Pressed on whether the United States is willing to discuss troop withdrawal, Pompeo declined to offer details but appeared to leave the door open. Trump has said previously that while he would consider reducing troop levels in the future to save money, such a move was not on the table for the summit.

After their summit Tuesday morning, Trump and Kim plan to have a working lunch, with their respective delegations, before potentially holding another bilateral meeting in the afternoon.

Plans following lunch are flexible to allow for further meeting time, a U.S. official said.

The White House said Trump would leave Singapore at 8 p.m. Tuesday local time to return to Washington after speaking to the press corps.

News reports have speculated that the North Korean delegation could depart Singapore on Tuesday afternoon, but U.S. officials said they believe it is possible that Trump and Kim could continue talking if their morning session goes smoothly.

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One U.S. official was quoted by a South Korean news outlet saying he believes that the report of an early departure for Kim was intended as a negotiating tactic for the North Korean side to gain leverage in the talks.

“The discussions that take place tomorrow between Chairman Kim and President Trump will set the framework for the hard work to follow,” Pompeo said. “We’ll see how far we get.”

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