SEOUL/WASHINGTON: American and North Korean officials met at the border between North and South Korea on Sunday in preparation for a possible North Korea-US summit, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was cited as reaffirming his commitment to meet with US President Donald Trump.
Both Pyongyang and Washington are pressing ahead on plans for a summit after Trump pulled out of the proposed June 12 meeting on Thursday, only to reconsider the decision the next day.
“A US delegation is in ongoing talks with North Korean officials at Panmunjom,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, referring to a village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs along the heavily armed border between North and South Korea.
“We continue to prepare for a meeting between the President and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” she said in a statement.
In addition to those talks, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said a “pre-advance team” left for Singapore — sceptical summit has been expected to take place — on Sunday morning to work on logistics.
Earlier on Sunday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he and North Korea’s Kim had agreed during a surprise meeting on Saturday that the North Korea-US summit must be held.
The weekend meetings were the latest dramatic turn in a week of diplomatic ups and downs over the prospects for an unprecedented summit between the United States and North Korea and the strongest sign yet that the leaders of the two Koreas are trying to keep the meeting on track.
North Korea has faced years of economic sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs since it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
The US has struggled to slow the isolated country’s weapons programs, which have become a security priority for Washington given Pyongyang’s promise to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland.
A US official told Reuters that Sung Kim, the former US ambassador to South Korea, would lead an American delegation to meet North Korean officials at the border. Pentagon official Randall Schriver was part of the US team, the official said.
The Washington Post first reported that the team, which also included Allison Hooker, the Korea expert on the White House National Security Council, met with Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister.
The Post said the talks at the border would continue Monday and Tuesday at Tongilgak, the North’s building in Panmunjom, where the truce suspending the 1950-53 Korean War was signed.
In their meeting on Saturday, Kim reaffirmed his commitment to “complete” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to a planned summit with Trump, Moon told reporters in Seoul.
“Chairman Kim and I have agreed that the June 12 summit should be held successfully and that our quest for the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization and a perpetual peace regime should not be halted,” Moon said.
Moon acknowledged Pyongyang and Washington may have differing expectations of what denuclearization means and he urged both sides to hold working-level talks to resolve their differences.
The US has demanded the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has rejected unilateral disarmament and has always couched its language in terms of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In previous, failed talks, North Korea said it could consider giving up its arsenal if Washington removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.
North Korea has tested dozens of missiles of various types in the past two years, including one launch of its largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile, which is theoretically capable of hitting anywhere in the US, on November 29.
Mistrust on both sides
American officials are sceptical that Kim will ever fully abandon his nuclear arsenal. Moon said North Korea is not convinced it can trust security guarantees from the US.
“However, during the US-South Korea summit, President Trump clearly emphasized that we may see not only the end of hostile relations but also economic cooperation if North Korea denuclearizes,” Moon said.
Moon met Trump in Washington on Tuesday in an effort to keep the US-North Korea summit on track.
A senior South Korean official said later the two Koreas were discussing a possible non-aggression pledge and the start of peace treaty talks as a way of addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns before US-North Korean negotiations.
A statement from North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said Kim expressed “his fixed will” on the possibility of meeting Trump as previously planned.
Trump scrapped the summit after repeated threats by North Korea to pull out over what it saw as confrontational remarks by US officials demanding unilateral disarmament.
North Korea had sharply criticized suggestions by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, and Vice President Mike Pence that it could share the fate of Libya if it did not swiftly surrender its nuclear arsenal. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed by NATO-backed militants in 2011 after halting his nascent nuclear program.
Trump dismissed the so-called Libya model. Sanders, his spokeswoman, told Fox News on May 15: “This is the President Trump model. He’s going to run this the way he sees fit.”
Kim had requested a meeting with Moon to clarify what the “Trump model” meant, Yonhap news agency of South Korea reported, citing an unidentified foreign affairs source.
Kim and Trump’s initial decision to meet followed months of war threats and insults between the leaders over the North’s nuclear program.
Trump said on Saturday he was still looking at a June 12 summit date and that talks were progressing well.
“We’re doing very well in terms of the summit with North Korea,” Trump said at the White House. “It’s moving along very nicely. So we’re looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn’t changed. So, we’ll see what happens.”