President Trump has expressed new openness to talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, saying "we will be meeting" as he delivered what was supposed to be a comedic speech at a lighthearted annual gala dinner hosted by Washington journalists.
Officials said later that no meeting has been scheduled, but Trump’s apparently unscripted aside seemed to indicate a willingness to negotiate with the government of Kim Jong Un, whom Trump has taunted as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump delivered a self-deprecating punchline during a rambling speech Saturday night in front of more than 600 journalists and guests at the Gridiron Dinner at the Renaissance Washington Hotel, saying: “I won't rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un, I just won't. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”
But then he appeared to depart from his written remarks to describe an overture that Pyongyang has extended to Washington, apparently through the government in South Korea.
"By the way, a couple days ago they said, ‘We would like to talk,’ and I said, ‘So would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke,’ ” Trump said.
The Trump administration has publicly insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program before talks could begin, a demand Pyongyang on Sunday dismissed as “preposterous.”
In his comments, however, Trump hinted he may be considering other options, saying “maybe positive things are happening” and “we will be meeting, and we’ll see if anything positive happens."
A U.S. official said that Washington would insist that any talks should focus on denuclearization, but that it would not demand Pyongyang disarm first or set other preconditions to meet. For its part, North Korea wants international recognition of its role as a nuclear power, a position the U.S. and its allies say they cannot accept.
But some progress appeared in sight. On Sunday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry dismissed U.S. demands that it give up its nuclear arsenal. But it also said dialogue with Washington was possible and that it hopes to find a “diplomatic and peaceful solution” to the conflict.
Trump previously said he would be willing to talk to North Korea’s leader. Speaking to reporters at Camp David, Md., in January, Trump said he would “absolutely” be willing to talk to Kim without preconditions. “I have no problem with that at all.”
That signal appeared to get through to Pyongyang. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence prepared to meet secretly with North Korean officials during his visit to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
But the North Korean delegation, led by Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, canceled the meeting at the last minute after Pence vowed to sharply expand U.S. sanctions.
Last fall, Trump seemed eager to quash an effort by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to start talks with Kim’s government through back channels in an effort to defuse tensions. In October, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
Trump believes his “maximum pressure” campaign to isolate North Korea from the world economy through trade, banking and shipping restrictions has made Kim more willing to engage with South Korea, and ultimately with Washington.
In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly claimed credit for North Korea’s decision to send a delegation to the Olympic Games and have its athletes walk with South Korean athletes in the opening ceremony, although leaders in Seoul and Pyongyang arranged the joint appearance themselves.
South Korea will send a 10-member delegation to Pyongyang on Monday to pursue the nascent thaw in relations. The visit will attempt to lower tensions on the peninsula and encourage Kim’s government to reenter dialogue with Washington, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The talks come at a critical moment as the nascent diplomatic spirit between the parties from the Games fades and negotiators face the tough, fundamental questions about their disagreements going forward.
"If the envoys' trip goes well, it certainly is a win for Moon and raises hope for diplomacy to continue," said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, referring to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. "But the road is still delicate and tensions could escalate if the situation is mismanaged."
A first test for any future diplomacy could come as Seoul and Washington determine when to resume their annual military exercises on the peninsula, which were delayed for the Games.
The drills, which the North sees as invasion preparations, could derail continued dialogue and the possibility for better relations between Pyongyang and Seoul and ultimately Washington.
The South's delegation, led by two of Moon's top foreign policy aides, is expected to return home Tuesday and then fly to Washington to brief officials there about the discussions.
Moon selected Suh Hoon, who heads the South's state spy agency, and Chung Eui-yong, head of the national security office, as his emissaries. The two aides are thought to have strong inter-Korean experience and good relations with national security officials in Washington.
Duyeon Kim said the aides' selection is both practical and symbolic.
"It shows that Moon is placing heavy, if not almost equal, importance on both inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations," she said.
North Korea surprised U.S. intelligence officials last year by making rapid advances in its weapons programs. It tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that for the first time appeared capable of reaching the continental United States, and it tested a thermonuclear device in September that was far more powerful than earlier versions.
U.S. officials say it is only a matter of time, perhaps less than a year, before Pyongyang masters the ability to build a bomb small and robust enough to be launched atop a long-range ballistic missile, and thus pose a direct threat to the United States.