Wednesday 18 September 2019

Everybody plays games, says Trump over Korea

The on-off summit between the US and North Korea might just be on again - although no one can say for sure as the two sides parry for attention and try to keep the upper hand

ON/OFF: South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) before their meeting yesterday in the Korean DMZ. Photo: AFP/Getty
ON/OFF: South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right) before their meeting yesterday in the Korean DMZ. Photo: AFP/Getty

Catherine Lucy

President Donald Trump says "everybody plays games" as he's suggesting the summit with North Korea that he suddenly called off might get back on track, rekindling hopes of progress toward halting the North's nuclear weapons development

Trump has welcomed the North's conciliatory response to his letter last Thursday withdrawing from the June 12 meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un. Trump said last Friday it was even possible the meeting could take place on the originally planned date.

"They very much want to do it; we'd like to do it," he said.

Trump later tweeted that the two countries were "having very productive talks". He wrote that the summit, "if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date".

In the meantime, Kim and South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, met yesterday at a border truce village. They discussed carrying out the peace commitments they reached in their first summit, as well as Kim's potential meeting with Trump, Moon's office said. Moon was expected today to reveal the outcome of his surprise meeting with Kim.

It was the clearest sign yet that the on-again off-again summit between Trump and Kim is likely to be held as initially agreed, in Singapore on June 12.

The unannounced meeting at the Panmunjom border village between Moon and Kim came a month after they held the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade at the same venue and declared they would move toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

"The two leaders candidly exchanged views about making the North Korea-US summit a successful one and about implementing the Panmunjom Declaration," South Korea's presidential spokesman said in a statement.

Moon, who returned to Seoul last week after a meeting with Trump, will announce details of the meeting with Kim later this morning.

Trump had scrapped the plan to meet in a letter to Kim last Thursday after repeated threats by North Korea to pull out over what it saw as confrontational remarks by US officials demanding unilateral disarmament.

Trump cited North Korean hostility in cancelling the summit.

In Pyongyang, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan said North Korea's criticisms had been a reaction to American rhetoric and that current antagonism showed "the urgent necessity" for the summit.

He said North Korea regretted Trump's decision to cancel and remained open to resolving issues "regardless of ways, at any time".

Kim Kye-gwan said North Korea had appreciated Trump having made the bold decision to work toward a summit.

"We even inwardly hoped that what is called 'Trump formula' would help clear both sides of their worries and comply with the requirements of our side and would be a wise way of substantial effect for settling the issue," he said.

North Korea also went ahead with a plan to destroy its only known nuclear site last Thursday, the most concrete action yet since pledging to cease all nuclear and long-range missile tests last month. Dozens of international journalists left North Korea yesterday after observing the demolition of the underground tunnels in Punggye-ri, where all of the North's six nuclear tests were conducted including its latest and largest in September.

White House officials noted that Trump had left the door open with a letter to Kim that blamed "tremendous anger and open hostility" by Pyongyang but also urged Kim to call him.

By last Friday, North Korea issued a statement saying it was still "willing to give the US time and opportunities" to reconsider talks "at any time, at any format".

Trump rapidly tweeted that the statement was "very good news" and told reporters that "we're talking to them now".

Trump views the meeting as a legacy-defining opportunity and has relished the press attention and the speculation about a possible Nobel Peace Prize. He made a quick decision to accept the meeting in March, over the concerns of many top aides, and has remained committed, even amid rising concerns about the challenges he faces in scoring a positive agreement.

Asked last Friday if the North Koreans were playing games with their communications, Trump responded: "Everybody plays games. You know that better than anybody."

He did not detail the nature of the new US communication with the North.

At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said "diplomats are still at work on the summit, possibility of a summit, so that is very good news". He characterised the recent back-and-forth as the "usual give and take".

A previously planned trip by White House aides to Singapore this weekend to work on logistics for the trip remained on schedule, said two White House officials, who were not authorised to speak publicly and discuss the matter on condition of anonymity.

The US and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, complicating the task of communicating between the two governments. Under the Trump administration, the CIA, where now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served as director, has taken an unusually prominent role in back-channel negotiations.

Pompeo last year assembled a working group at the CIA called the Korea Mission Centre, which gradually assumed the lead role in talks with the North Koreans, and the group's director, a retired senior CIA official with deep experience in the region, became the main US interlocutor with Pyongyang.

The group did not supplant the State Department's traditional mode of communication with the North, which is known as the "New York Channel" and involves US diplomats and their North Korean counterparts posted to the United Nations. But it did play the major role in organising Pompeo's two trips to Pyongyang, one as CIA director and one as secretary of state.

Trump, in his letter to Kim, objected specifically to a statement from a leading North Korean Foreign Ministry official.

That statement referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a "political dummy" for his comments on the North and said it was up to the Americans whether they would "meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown".

Trump then said from the White House that a "maximum pressure campaign" of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation would continue against North Korea - with which the US is technically still at war - though he added that it was possible the summit could still take place at some point.

US defence and intelligence officials have repeatedly assessed the North to be on the threshold of having the capability to strike anywhere in the continental US with a nuclear-tipped missile - a capacity that Trump and other US officials have said they would not tolerate.

Trump, speaking last Friday to graduates at the US Naval Academy, did not mention North Korea directly, but he stressed the military might of the United States.

He said: "The best way to prevent war is to be fully prepared for war."

©Associated Press

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