Sunday 16 December 2018

Trump hails North Korea progress despite qualms and chaos

South Korea’s national security chief Chung Eui-yong with President Trump, who is willing to talk to North Korea. Photo: Reuters
South Korea’s national security chief Chung Eui-yong with President Trump, who is willing to talk to North Korea. Photo: Reuters

Rob Crilly

US President Donald Trump has said a deal with North Korea is "very much in the making", after criticism over his readiness to agree to talks with Pyongyang.

"The deal... will be, if completed, a very good one for the world. Time and place to be determined," Trump said in a tweet.

But the White House said talks would only take place once the secretive regime took "concrete and verifiable actions" that went beyond promises to halt nuclear testing and denuclearise.

It has emerged that the president's sudden acceptance of an invitation to a historic summit was apparently off the cuff, leaving aides scurrying to draft a new blueprint for dealing with Pyongyang.

Trump's immediate positive response to Kim Jong-un's invitation to talk had taken not only senior US officials by surprise, but also the South Korean envoys who delivered it, according to reports.

The South Koreans, including national security chief Chung Eui-yong, had been due to meet with Trump last Friday, when the president invited them and HR McMaster, the US national security adviser, into the Oval Office for an impromptu debriefing a day early, reported the New York Times.

When Chung told the president that Kim Jong-un had indicated he was interested in meeting, Donald Trump immediately said yes and asked the South Korean intelligence official to announce it himself to the press.

A bewildered Chung reportedly had to first call South Korean president Moon Jae-in to get his approval, before Mr McMaster and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders worked out the unusual logistics of a foreign government making such a significant announcement from the White House.

A senior South Korean official later told the Yonhap newswire that the envoys had delivered a "special message" to Trump from Kim in addition to the summit invitation. The official declined to disclose the contents of the message, saying that it was meant to be an exchange between two leaders, but indicated that "it was part of [Kim's] effort to build trust".

The White House has struggled to keep a lid on mixed messages in the wake of Trump's surprise decision to be the first sitting US president to enter direct talks with a North Korean leader. Previous presidents had shied away from similar summits for fear of handing a propaganda coup to Pyongyang that it was being treated as an equal on the world stage.

The Trump administration stressed it would still maintain "maximum pressure" on North Korea, while attempting to swat away criticism that the US was getting nothing in exchange for agreeing to the historic face-to-face meeting.

The summit announcement appeared to have caught some US officials off guard, including secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was not briefed before Trump took his audacious diplomatic gambit. Tillerson, who is on his first trip to Africa, had told reporters last Thursday that talks with the North were a distant prospect.

Yesterday, aides said he had cancelled his programme in Kenya for the day because of "not feeling well after a long couple of days working on major issues back home such as North Korea".

Despite Trump's approach, planning for the potential summit will be hampered by the lack of senior qualified experts available to help top officials to develop a negotiating strategy.

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