10 Mar Trump on Kim Talks: ‘Tell Him Yes’
Inside the Oval Office late Thursday, President Donald Trump interrupted a trio of South Korean officials as they analyzed an offer to meet from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and outlined possible diplomatic options.
“OK, OK,” Mr. Trump said, cutting short the discussion. “Tell them I’ll do it.”
The South Korean officials looked at each other as if in disbelief, according to a White House official with knowledge of the meeting, as Mr. Trump continued. He would become the first sitting U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader, if Mr. Kim was sincere and understood the terms. “Tell him yes,” the president said.
That unusual moment touched off a rush by U.S. officials to assemble a diplomatic strategy with little precedent in U.S. history.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a military parade last month in Pyongyang. Photo: kcna via kns/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
White House aides, State Department officials, U.S. intelligence officers and others scrambled to start the work of arranging a summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim to take place as early as May and that must somehow address a range of military, economic and civil-liberties issues that have defied solutions for decades.
The agreement for a meeting between Messrs. Trump and Kim with no advance preparation was considered unusual. The time-honored way for American officials to pursue major arms-control accords has been for negotiators on both sides to clear away many of the sticking points before elevating the remaining obstacles to top leaders.
Mr. Trump has stood the traditional diplomatic model on its head. Casting aside years of protocol, the president agreed to a summit with Mr. Kim before any of his aides had even sat down with a North Korean representative to clarify precisely where Pyongyang stands on fundamental nuclear issues.
The coming weeks will bring a dizzying pace of activity as aides across the federal government prepare for the logistics, strategies and substance of the meeting between the two leaders. Questions regarding U.S. aims, longstanding roadblocks and even the composition of the U.S. negotiating team remain to be addressed.
Trump White House Messaging
In the Thursday meeting among administration officials and South Koreans bearing an offer from Mr. Kim were the president; Vice President Mike Pence ; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ; national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster ; Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council’s top Asia adviser; White House chief of staff John Kelly ; Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff; and John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of State.
During the meeting, Mr. Trump told the South Koreans that they should tell the world about the plans. A small circle of White House officials were aware that the South Koreans were bringing an invitation from Mr. Kim—and that the president would accept it—but the spur-of-the-moment decision from Mr. Trump to have the South Koreans speak for him was unexpected.
The move ensured that the news wouldn’t leak and be massaged and spun by others. “It would have backfired to hold on to this,” one White House official said. “This eliminated the real risks. The story out there now is the truth.”
“He’s so sick of the Foggy Bottom bullshit of diplomacy gray talk of maybe they meant this, maybe they meant that,” the official said. “No one can be confused this way.”
Confident that he had made the right decision, Mr. Trump walked into the White House briefing room to tease reporters about a major upcoming announcement.
The move surprised the reporters—and his own team. Mr. Trump has so rarely entered the briefing room that he was initially surprised when he opened a door to a suite of low-level press assistants. Then he fumbled with the pocket door leading into the briefing room, where he took a group of reporters by surprise.
Mr. Trump agreed to the meeting, believing he is in a prime negotiating position. The White House has said that it hasn’t made any concessions, that Mr. Kim has agreed to talk about eliminating his nuclear arsenal, and that the U.S.’s plan for maximum pressure continues.
But in a sign of some of the complications posed by Mr. Trump’s approach, the White House on Friday appeared to attach new conditions to Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet Mr. Kim.
South Korean officials emerged from the White House on Thursday to announce that President Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: michael reynolds/epa-efe/rex/shu/EPA/Shutterstock
“The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, adding Mr. Trump accepted the invitation “based on the promises that they have made.”
Later Friday, officials clarified that the White Housewasn’t outlining any change in position from Thursday’s announcement of a meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders.
“The invitation has been extended and accepted, and that stands. We expect the North Koreans to adhere to the assurances they’ve made, and if any of that changes, yes, we’ll have to rethink whether this would happen,” a White House official said.
The U.S. Team
Before Mr. Trump agreed to a meeting with Mr. Kim, the U.S. diplomat who best knew the North Koreans, Joseph Yun, decided to resign.
The State Department’s team on North Korea issues now includes Susan Thornton, who has yet to be confirmed as an assistant secretary, and Mark Lambert, who has assumed Mr. Yun’s duties.
The ambassadorial post at the U.S. embassy in Seoul still stands empty, though the No. 2 diplomat there, Marc Knapper, has long experience on North Korean and Asian issues.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday brushed off questions about the vacancies. “We have very capable, skilled career diplomats ready to step up and serve in those positions and they are serving superbly,” he said.
Setting Up the Rapid-fire Summit
Mr. Trump made the decision to meet Mr. Kim on his own after consulting others, officials said, but now aides will scurry to complete the necessary legwork.
The general plan is for U.S. officials to have preliminary conversations with their North Korean counterparts and determine that they are serious before Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim meet for talks about negotiations at a place and time to be determined.
“The expectation is that the talks would lead to a discussion around a conclusion that we’re ready to engage in negotiations,” a senior State Department official said.
The purpose of Mr. Trump’s meeting would be to build trust before any formal negotiations begin. But questions remain on how Mr. Trump and his American advisers would do so. Would Mr. Trump engage in a largely unscripted meeting with Mr. Kim? Would each leader read a prearranged statement? Or would officials from the two sides try to draw up a joint statement of principles that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim could announce as a guide to subsequent talks?
North Korea tested what was said to be a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile in August. Photo: Associated Press
“The latter would be a more impressive outcome, obviously, but trying to negotiate it and failing would be seen as a setback,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department official, who negotiated with North Korean officials during the Clinton administration.
How Speedy Talks Affect Success or Failure
Mr. Trump’s unorthodox approach could accelerate the negotiating process or at least enable the administration to put Mr. Kim’s expressed willingness to discuss the elimination of his nuclear arsenal to an early test.
But without careful diplomatic preparations over the next several weeks, some experts warn, it could be a rush to failure.
“In diplomacy, a meeting with the president of the United States is at the very high end of what we have to offer and is normally the culmination of some serious and constructive work in which the other side demonstrates that they are serious about reaching an agreement,” said Daniel Russel, who served as the State Department’s top official on Asia during the second Obama administration and is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“Without being excessively conventional about it, there is a real question about the wisdom of reversing the sequence and beginning by granting a meeting with the president, something the North Koreans have asked for again and again, at a moment when all they are offering are vague caveated promises,” Mr. Russel added.
Other experts say the North Koreans may be serious about trying to reach some sort of accommodation with the U.S., and a high-profile summit meeting could be the long-awaited start of a potentially constructive dialogue.
“This is serious stuff for the North Koreans [for someone] to have a meeting with their leader,” said Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official.
The Meaning of Denuclearization
There is a risk the two sides have wildly differing expectations about the pace at which denuclearization might be achieved and what the U.S. should offer in return. Will the elimination of nuclear weapons be a distant goal or a more immediate objective, and how would either come about?
Some former U.S. officials believe it is highly unlikely that North Korea would ever agree to give up its nuclear weapons, an assessment shared by U.S. intelligence analysts. Nor, they say, would Pyongyang be eager to agree to the sort of on-site verification that would be needed to assure such an agreement.
Instead or risking a diplomatic failure by overreaching, they say, the White House would be wise to concentrate initially on more limited steps.
“We could verify an agreement that banned testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” said William J. Perry, who served as defense secretary when the Clinton administration wrestled with North Korea. “It would be equally in our interest to have an agreement stopping the proliferation of North Korean nuclear components and technology.”
There was little hint, however, that Mr. Trump was prepared to temper his expectations. After the South Korean announcement that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim would meet, the White House rushed out a statement. “We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea,” it said. “In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
The North Korean Dilemma
Two previous presidential administrations— Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s —tried in vain to temper North Korea’s nuclear-weapons ambitions.
In each case, the efforts collapsed with U.S. accusing Pyongyang of cheating, which North Korea denied.
Mr. Perry said he was skeptical that North Korea would ever fully give up its nuclear weapons—and just as skeptical that the U.S. could ensure compliance if Pyongyang ever did agree.
“It is a fundamental error to think that we could reliably verify a treaty by which North Korea agreed to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons,” he said.
North Korea has long been a skillful manipulator, cautioned Evan Medeiros, a former senior Obama administration official who is now managing director at Eurasia Group in Washington.
“Trump will be walking into talks with Kim before the U.S. has thoroughly debated and prepared internally for the encounter, let alone having adequately discussed the situation with allies and friends,” Mr. Medeiros wrote in a note to clients.
A senior Trump administration official defended the current initiative in the face of warnings of such pitfalls.
“It made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions, instead of repeating the sort of long slog of the past,” the official said.
—Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong in Seoul and Alastair Gale in Tokyo contributed to this article.
Write to Michael R. Gordon at email@example.com, Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
Appeared in the March 10, 2018, print edition.