Trump Warns Summit With North Korea May Not Happen On Schedule

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 22, 2018 4:53 pm

Updated at 4:47 p.m. ET

President Trump cautioned that his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may not happen as planned.

"There's a chance, there's a very substantial chance that it won't work out," Trump said during an Oval Office photo op with the president of South Korea. "I don't want to waste a lot of time. And I'm sure he doesn't want to waste a lot of time. So there's a very substantial chance that it won't work out and that's OK. That doesn't mean that it won't work out over a period of time."

South Korean president Moon Jae-in is eager to keep the meeting on track, in hopes that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program.

Earlier, South Korea's national security director told reporters that his country is confident the Trump-Kim meeting will go forward.

"We believe there is a 99.9 percent chance the North Korea-U.S. summit will be held as scheduled," said Chung Eui-yong. "But we're just preparing for many different possibilities."

Chung added that officials in Washington and Seoul have been coordinating closely in advance of the summit.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Kim in preparation for the summit, said the U.S. is still working towards the June 12 date. He declined to give odds on whether the meeting will come off on schedule.

"I'm not a betting man," Pompeo said. "I wouldn't care to predict whether it will happen, only to predict that we'll be ready in the event that it does."

After weeks of conciliatory gestures, Kim put the summit meeting in doubt by suggesting that North Korea is not willing to give up its nuclear program too easily.

The Trump administration has insisted that Kim scrap that program entirely before granting any relief from economic sanctions. But Trump allowed there might be room for a more phased approach, as South Korea has suggested.

"All in one would be nice," Trump said Tuesday. "It would certainly be better if it were all in one. Does it have to be? I don't think I want to totally commit myself."

Trump also offered assurances that the U.S. would not try to drive Kim from power if he agreed to disarm.

"We will guarantee his safety," Trump said. "He will be safe. He will be happy. His country will be rich."

"Anybody who's looked at this issue for years knows that you don't get fairy-tale endings with North Korea," said Victor Cha, a Korea expert in the George W. Bush administration who was considered for a post as Trump's ambassador to Seoul. "It tends to be a lot more difficult and rocky and dirty and suspense-filled."

South Korea's Moon continued to nudge Trump in the direction of diplomacy.

"I have every confidence that President Trump will be able to achieve a historic feat of making the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit successful and end the Korean war that had been lasting the past 65 years," Moon said through an interpreter.

"Moon is a resourceful politician. He's played his cards very well. But there's just so much that could go off the rails here when and if Trump does, in fact, go to Singapore," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Trump hasn't always been on such friendly terms with South Korea. During the 2016 presidential campaign and since, Trump has complained about what he sees as that country's freeloading reliance on U.S. military might.

"You look at what the world is doing to us at every level, whether it's militarily or in trade or at so many other levels," Trump told CNN during the campaign, "the world is taking advantage of the United States."

South Korea pays about half the cost of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. The country also picked up most of the bill for an $11 billion
expansion of a U.S. military base 55 miles south of Seoul.

Trump is also unhappy with the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea, which topped $10 billion last year. Two months ago, the U.S. agreed on a revised trade agreement with South Korea. It limits steel imports from that country and extends a tariff on imported pickup trucks.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump is meeting today at the White House with South Korea's president Moon Jae-in. The two men are partners in an effort to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons. But at times this has really been an uneasy partnership. Not so long ago, Trump was criticizing South Korea over trade policies and what Trump saw as a free-loading reliance on the U.S. military. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump often complained, as he did here on CNN, that the U.S. was getting a raw deal for military and economic partners around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You look at what the world is doing to us at every level. Whether it's militarily, or in trade or in so many other levels, the world is taking advantage of the United States.

HORSLEY: South Korea was one of Trump's top targets. As president, he's argued South Korea should be paying more for the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there. Seoul did pick up most of the $11 billion cost to expand the U.S. military base, but during a visit to South Korea last fall, Trump said that wasn't good enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: That money was spent, for the most part, to protect South Korea, not to protect the United States. But some of that money was spent by us. That being said, that was long before my time, and I'm sure I could have built it for a lot less.

HORSLEY: Trump also complained about the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea, which was more than $10 billion last year despite an Obama-era trade agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: A deal that, frankly, has been quite unsuccessful and not very good for the United States.

HORSLEY: Two months ago, the administration struck a new trade deal with South Korea that limits steel imports from that country and extends a tariff on imported pickup trucks. While Trump was complaining about South Korea, Seoul had worries of its own, including Trump's own bellicose rhetoric towards North Korea. Here's the president speaking at the U.N. last September.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.

VICTOR CHA: Whenever that discussion moved to talk of possible military action, I think that's where the South Korean government was not on board.

HORSLEY: Victor Cha is a Korea expert who was considered but ultimately passed over as Trump's ambassador to Seoul. He says, despite its apprehension about military action, South Korea went along with tough economic sanctions against the North, and South Korean officials have regularly flattered Trump for his diplomatic prowess. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued his surprise invitation for a summit meeting with Trump, South Korea's National Security Director Chung Eui-yong was careful to give the U.S. president most of the credit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUNG EUI-YONG: His leadership and his maximum-pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.

HORSLEY: That summit meeting next month between Trump and Kim is now in some doubt after North Korea suggested it might not be ready to give up its nuclear weapons. Even if the meeting takes place, the U.S. and South Korea are potentially divided over what should happen next. The Trump administration insists North Korea must completely dismantle its nuclear program before getting any relief from economic sanctions. South Korea, on the other hand, might go along with a more phased approach. Brookings analyst Jonathan Pollack says that's one of the questions Trump and Moon will have to address.

JONATHAN POLLACK: Moon is a resourceful politician. He's played his cards very well. But there's just so much that could go off the rails here when and if Trump does in fact go to Singapore.

HORSLEY: Trump is eager for a diplomatic victory with North Korea, but Victor Cha, who served in the George W. Bush White House, says it's likely to be a bumpy road.

CHA: You don't get fairy tale endings with North Korea. It tends to be much more difficult and rocky and dirty and suspense-filled.

HORSLEY: That will again test the strength of the decades-old alliance between Washington and Seoul. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.