White House seeks to save summit with North Korea

White House seeks to save summit with North Korea
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The Trump administration is scrambling to save a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un less than a week after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE canceled the meeting.

Since Trump’s Thursday letter calling off the sit-down, there’s been a flurry of diplomatic activity, including U.S. teams going to Singapore and the Korean Peninsula and a top North Korean official traveling to New York.

On Tuesday, Trump said North Korea had a “solid response” to his letter, the latest sign the summit may be back on. 

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It’s unclear whether the originally scheduled date of June 12 is still achievable, but Trump appears intent on meeting with Kim sooner rather than later.

“It’s far harder to keep up with and predict Korean developments. We’re in uncharted water,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA division chief for Korea who is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I think it’s going to happen. Whether they do it by the 12th or not, Trump seems eager to have it back on track.”

The historic summit with Kim appeared dead last week after Trump responded to a series of escalating North Korean threats by personally dictating a letter to Kim that said the summit planned for June 12 in Singapore “will not take place.”

The cancellation had Korea-watchers questioning whether even back channel negotiations would be possible at this point.

By the next day, though, Trump was saying the summit could still take place as originally scheduled after North Korea responded to his letter with a “warm and productive” statement.

In a traditional administration, June 12 would be too quick a turnaround for the summit after last week’s developments, experts said. Modern-day presidential summits have the results agreed to before the leaders sit down.

A senior White House official, too, told reporters at a White House-arranged briefing last week that it would be difficult to hold the summit on June 12. Trump over the weekend denied that official’s existence.

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, suggested Trump’s aides will try to talk him out of meeting with Kim before the summit agenda is set.

“His staff would be jumping up and down screaming not to do it, knowing these people, knowing these people all too well,” he said.

But Trump has flouted experts before, including by agreeing to the summit in the first place.

Since the cancellation, diplomacy has gone from zero interaction — part of the reason Trump canceled was because Pyongyang stopped responding to U.S. attempts to plan the summit — to multiple threads.

“It’s clear everybody is trying to get this summit done, but the question is still will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons or not,” Kazianis said.

Over the weekend, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had a hastily arranged summit with Kim — their second — to try to salvage U.S.–North Korea diplomacy. Moon left that meeting saying Kim was determined to meet with Trump and discuss “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Trump also agreed to meet June 7 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country has worried about its interests being neglected in a U.S.-North Korea deal.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said North Korea had been engaging with the United States on the possible summit, which her statement described as “expected,” but did not specify a date.

“Since the President’s May 24th letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the North Koreans have been engaging,” Sanders said in the statement. “The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump’s expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore.”

A U.S. team composed of a U.S. diplomat and representatives from the National Security Council and Pentagon is meeting with a North Korean delegation at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.

Meanwhile, another U.S. team that includes White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin is in Singapore coordinating the logistics of the summit.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Graham knocks South Korea over summit with North Shrapnel in Yemen strikes links US-made bombs to 63 civilian deaths: report MORE is scheduled to meet with North Korea’s top nuclear weapons negotiator, Kim Yong Chol, in New York later in the week.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that June 12 in Singapore “is what we’re planning for, but we’ll see what happens.”

“The primary conversation is going to be as we lead up to this meeting that we’re planning for June the 12th,” she said at a department press briefing.

It’s unclear how the New York, Singapore and DMZ meetings will differ from each other. Nauert said she would not get into the “nitty-gritty” of what each will focus on, but said each team is discussing different pieces of the issue based on its expertise.

Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling party, is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the United States since 2000. That year, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok met with then-President Clinton amid a failed effort to broker a nuclear agreement.

Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, described Kim Yong Chol’s visit as an “opportunity.”

“That Jo Myong Rok–Clinton agreement remains to this day the preferred North Korea state of relations between the U.S. and North Korea,” Jannuzi said at panel hosted by the Stimson Center. “The Jo Myong Rok–Clinton joint statement lays out the totality of what North Korea is trying to accomplish this round. I hope that Kim Yong Chul’s visit will lead to something comparable to the Jo Myong Rok joint statement.”

Kim Yong Chol’s visit shows North Korea is committed to having the summit happen, Kazianis said. But, he added, he worries the meetings are meant to get Trump to agree to come without a firm denuclearization commitment, rather than North Korea agreeing to the United States’s definition of denuclearization.

“The next few days are going to be chaos,” he said. “I’m worried North Korea is trying to weasel their way out of denuclearization or just push it way out in the future.”

Klingner similarly said it was unclear whether the three meetings in New York, Singapore and the DMZ can result in an agreement on denuclearization or if they are simply meant to discuss logistics for the summit.

He was pessimistic about whether the former could be achieved.

“There’s a long, long, long list of North Korean statements of them never abandoning their treasured sword of nuclear weapons,” he said. “It seems hard to believe they’re willing to abandon something they’ve been working on for 50 years.”