The United States and North Korea are holding “behind-the-scenes” discussions to set up a third summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un and revive nuclear disarmament talks that stalled early this year, South Korea’s president said Wednesday.
“Both sides have been engaged in dialogue in regard to a third summit,” Moon Jae-in said in written responses to questions submitted by news agencies about the current state of negotiations.
“There’s no reason to regard the current situation as a stalemate in the peace process on the peninsula just because the pace has remained slow,” he added. “The success of denuclearization and the peace process on the Korean peninsula cannot be determined by a summit or two.”
His remarks came as Trump prepared to visit the region. He was expected to arrive Thursday in Osaka, Japan, then travel to Seoul two days later to meet with Moon and visit U.S. troops.
Trump told reporters in Washington that he won’t be meeting Kim during his trip, but that he “may be speaking to him in a different form.”
The notion of an imminent summit seemed at odds with a statement Wednesday from North Korea accusing the U.S. of “extreme hostile acts.”
The statement, released by state media and attributed to a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, steered clear of criticizing Trump, instead focusing on Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and his recent comment that most of North Korea’s economy remained under heavy sanctions.
The statement called Pompeo “reckless” and said his comments reflected the United States’ wish to “bring us to our knees by means of sanctions and pressure.”
“If anyone dares to trample over our sovereignty and the right to existence, we will not hesitate to pull a muscle-flexing trigger in order to defend ourselves,” it said.
Still, Trump and Kim recently exchanged personal letters, their first communication since February, when Trump abruptly ended their Vietnam summit without any deal.
North Korean state media reported over the weekend that Kim praised Trump’s “political judging faculty and extraordinary courage” after receiving a letter of “excellent content” from the U.S. president. Trump earlier told reporters in the U.S. that he’d received a “beautiful” hand-delivered letter from Kim timed with his birthday.
“We get along very well,” Trump said. Asked whether the letter included a mention of the possibility of another meeting between the leaders, he said “maybe there was” one.
Moon, who has staked much of his political capital on improving relations with North Korea and brokering the talks between Trump and Kim, said “a sea of mistrust” existed between the U.S. and North Korea after seven decades of enmity and that it will take time and dialogue to overcome that mistrust.
“The task at the current stage is to decide how to implement the promises made to each other,” he said.
Trump and Kim’s second summit fell apart with the U.S. saying North Korea had demanded large-scale sanctions relief but was willing to give up only one nuclear facility. Trump administration officials have said North Korea must fully denuclearize before removal of any of the economic sanctions put in place in retaliation for its nuclear and missile testing.
In the months since, North Korea has edged toward provocation without taking steps that would entirely upend diplomacy, conducting its first missile tests in more than a year and repeatedly assailing U.S. officials in state media. At the same time, Kim has turned to old allies in the region for support in the nuclear negotiations, holding separate summits in recent weeks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang.
Moon said Xi and Putin were in agreement with him in the assessment that Kim was sincere in his desire to denuclearize and prioritize North Korea’s economy over its military might.
“Not only myself but other leaders who have met him in person, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, all speak of their trust in Chairman Kim’s promise,” he said.
Trump is set to meet with Xi and Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, which begins Friday, but any discussions about North Korea may be overshadowed by the U.S.-China trade war and tensions with Iran.
Stephen Biegun, Trump’s top nuclear negotiator with North Korea, is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Thursday ahead of Trump’s visit this weekend, fueling speculation about whether there would be contact with North Korean representatives.
Speaking at a conference in Washington last week, Biegun said that talks with North Korea were in a “holding pattern” and that the two countries did not have an agreed understanding of what “denuclearization” entails.
North Korean officials have said that they take denuclearization to mean the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons in the region, in concurrence with the North relinquishing its arsenal. The U.S. has said its goal is the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
Even so, Biegun said the door remained “wide open” to talks.
“Both sides understand the need for a flexible approach,” he said. “We have to go beyond the formulas that for the past 25 years have failed to resolve this problem.”