After a rare meeting with a high-ranking North Korean official, President Trump said Friday he has rescheduled a June 12 summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un as part of a long-term effort to try and end the latter's nuclear weapons programs.
While hailing the promise of an unprecedented summit, Trump also sought to tamp down expectations by saying that "we're not going to go sign something" at the Singapore meeting. Instead, he said, "the process will begin” on an agreement to have Kim eliminate the nuclear weapons that have generated global tensions for years.
“I think it’s a getting-to-know-you meeting, plus," Trump told reporters at the White House.
Little more than a week after he had canceled the June 12 meeting amid criticism from Kim Jong Un, Trump spoke warmly about the North Koreans after receiving a letter from Kim concerning the prospects of an historic summit between nuclear-armed leaders.
Kim Yong Chol, a former North Korean spy chief who is now a top aide to Kim Jong Un, entered the White House in the early afternoon to hand-deliver the letter to Trump during the Oval Office meeting with the U.S. president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump did not disclose the contents of Kim's message — "oh, would you like to see what was in that letter," he told reporters — but said he and the envoy discussed issues ranging from economic sanctions to a possible peace treaty between North and South Korea.
The president later said he had not even opened Kim's letter, saying, "I may be in for a big surprise, folks."
North Korea wants the United States and allies to remove economic sanctions that are crippling their economy; Trump said "I look forward to the day when I can take the sanctions off North Korea," but did not commit to such a step. He said additional sanctions are ready, but he will not apply them unless "the talks break down."
Trump's meeting with Kim Yong Chol and other North Korean officials lasted around an hour and 20 minutes. The president shook hands and posed for pictures outside the White House with members of the North Korean delegation.
"We will see you on June 12," Trump said.
The glad-handing marked a stark contrast, coming less than a year after Trump attacked Kim Jong Un as "Little Rocket Man" and all but threatened to destroy his country it continued to threaten the United States and it allies with nuclear weapons. For his part, Kim once referred to Trump as a "dotard."
Kim Yong Chol was the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the White House in 18 years — and he needed a waiver to get into the country. The United States has sanctioned the former spy leader for his suspected role in the cyberattacks on American companies.
The last such meeting came in late 2000, when lame duck President Bill Clinton hosted an envoy who brought a letter from then-North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father. That session did not lead to a meeting between Clinton and the elder Kim.
This time around, U.S. and North Korean leaders will meet face-to-face for the first time. In addition to Kim's nuclear weapons, the summit may include withdrawal of some sanctions as well relations between North and South Korea.
The Korean War between the split nations ended with an armistice in 1953. The two sides are again talking about a peace treaty, and Trump indicated that could be part of his meeting with Kim in Singapore.
"Can you believe we're talking about the ending of the Korean War?" Trump said at one point.
The letter from the younger Kim arrived little more than a week after Trump issued his own letter to the North Korean leader canceling a summit after it had first been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
In that message, Trump hit Kim for "the tremendous anger and open hostility" of statements he made after the scheduling of the summit, including attacks on U.S. officials who called for verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.
Kim and aides have said they will never surrender their nuclear weapons programs, the key to any negotiations involving the United States and its allies.
Right after the cancellation, however, Trump began talking about rescheduling the summit, citing more civil statements from Kim and the North Korean government.
American and Korean diplomats have been meeting in the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea to discuss a possible summit agenda. The U.S. also dispatched an advance team to Singapore to make logistical preparations for a summit.
Kim, meanwhile, has held meetings of his own.
The North Korean leader welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pyongyang this week. Russia supports lifting economic sanctions on North Korea.
Kim has also spoken with China President Xi Jinping during the up-and-down discussions about a Trump meeting. Trump suggested that Xi is the one who told Kim to take a harder line after the June 12 meeting was announced.
The North Korean leader is expected to press for a lifting of economic sanctions, and perhaps new forms of economic assistance, in exchange for an agreement on his nuclear weapons programs.
Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there is skepticism in the foreign policy community that Kim will dismantle all of his weapons programs, and that makes for a challenging set of negotiations.
"It all comes down to what the North Korean leader wants, which is difficult to answer unless you have a series of meetings," Collins said.
She added that the North Koreans "won't be giving up anything for free."