The White House announced on Saturday that it had scheduled a meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un towards the end of February. The announcement, following a meeting between the president and the North Korean envoy, comes amid months of stalled negotiations between Trump and the North Korean leader — as well as South Korean President Moon Jae-in — on the subject of the North’s denuclearization and the lifting of international sanctions on the politically and economically isolated totalitarian state.
“Kim Jong-un is looking very forward to it and so am I,” said Trump in a short briefing to reporters outside of the White House. The president went on to praise his administration’s “progress” in negotiations with the North Korean dictator and to complain that the U.S. media had failed to report his successes.
“We’ve made a lot of progress as far as denuclearization is concerned, and we’re talking about a lot of different things, but we’ve made tremendous progress that has not been reported unfortunately, but it will be,” the president said of his discussions with the North Korean envoy, Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, before leaving for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The remarks came only two days after the Pentagon released a “Missile Defense Review report” describing the administration’s plans for a “space-based missile defense layer,” a pretext for the president’s development of his controversial new “space force” branch of the U.S. military. Among the few details provided by the president in a speech given before members of the Pentagon were calls for 20 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greeley, in Alaska, and “new radars and sensors” for detecting foreign missiles launched towards the United States. The speech outlined an idea of a missile defense system in line with former president Ronald Reagan’s abandoned Cold War-era vision for an all-encompassing missile defense system, which Reagan dubbed “Star Wars” at the time.
“We are committed to establishing a missile defense program that can shield every city in the United States, and we will never negotiate away our right to do this,” Trump said. “Second, we will focus on developing new technology not just investing more money into existing systems. The world is changing, and we’re going to change much faster than the rest of the world.”
Seven months after the president’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, the missile defense report outlined a vision of a North Korea that still poses an immediate, nuclear threat to the United States. “While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant,” it said. The report comes in stark contrasts to the president’s assurance after that June summit that North Korea no longer posed such a threat.
“Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” he wrote on Twitter following the meeting. “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
The president’s Friday meeting, like last year’s summit, offered no concrete steps or agreements to reinforce such assurances. After Trump’s meeting with Kim Yong-chul, the White House confirmed that U.S. economic sanctions would remain on North Korea for the foreseeable future.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a separate meeting with Vice Chairman Kim on Friday, according to a statement released by the State Department. The two sides, they said, met to further the commitments made over half a year ago by the two countries’ leaders in Singapore, and held their first meeting at the “working level” after the initial talks. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was also in attendance. Biegun, it said, would travel to Sweden after the meeting for an international conference hosted by Sweden’s foreign ministry. North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, was also scheduled to attend.
According to Reuters, Trump administration officials had been trying to set up a meeting between Biegun and Choe, an effort that the North Korean regime had pushed back against in an effort to maintain a level of exclusivity among high ranking officials in the discussions. Indeed, Kim Jong-un himself has reportedly insisted on dealing only with President Trump, complaining last fall about having had to meet with Secretary Pompeo, Trump’s chief nuclear negotiator. In a recent letter to the president, the North Korean dictator said that he preferred to deal directly with Trump.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry, however, said on Sunday that Biegun would indeed be meeting with Choe during the conference for “small-format talks,” alongside South Korean official Lee Dohoon and other “international experts.” Biegun is also expected to discuss progress with North Korea in a separate meeting with Japanese diplomats.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled apart the apparent thaw in relations after seven months of relative silence on the issue. “You have to be afraid that we are playing into North Korea’s hands,” Joseph Y. Yun, a former State Department official with experience negotiating with North Korea, told the New York Times. “They want to wait, and have as much time as possible elapse when they don’t do anything significant to denuclearize, and become accepted regionally and globally as a nuclear state.”
In a press conference after the meetings, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fended off questions from reporters about the apparent stall in denuclearization talks since last summer’s summit. “The United States is gonna continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization,” she said outside of the White House. She said that the hour-and-a-half meeting with the president and his staff was productive, and praised the North Korean regime for its “good faith” measures, citing as her only example the release of three detained Americans in May of last year — before the summit.
The South Korean government, which like the United States has begun of late to inaugurate a series of press-heavy meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, has been pushing for another meeting between Trump and Kim. “The second North Korea-United States summit — to take place soon — and a reciprocal visit to Seoul by Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea will be other turning points that will firmly solidify peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said on Thursday. Those two anticipated meetings were the subject of letters that Kim sent to both Moon and Trump at the start of the new year, both of which received the praise of their recipients. Moon, like Trump, has shied away from drawing any attention, in all of this, to the ongoing crimes against humanity committed by the regime in the North, including though by no means limited to the widespread detention of defectors and other civilians in concentration camps.
The summery tone of Trump and administration officials after the meeting on Friday, however, reinforced their talk of an upcoming summit with Kim. While last June’s summit was subject to a series of cancellations and delays thanks to back-and-forth jabs between the U.S. and North Korea, it’s likely that next month’s will be all smiles and warm embraces, and of course cameras.