President Donald Trump will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday as U.S. officials try to assess North Korea’s intentions after Pyongyang threatened to pull out of a planned June 12 summit to discuss denuclearization.
Moon’s White House visit was intended to be a fine-tuning of the U.S. and South Korean strategy for dealing with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea led efforts to resume dialogue with North Korea and Moon gave enthusiastic accounts of its encounters with Kim, spurring Trump to accept an offer of a first-ever meeting between U.S. and North Korean presidents.
But the White House was caught off-guard when, in a dramatic change of tone, North Korea last week condemned the latest U.S.-South Korean air combat drills, suspended North-South talks and threw into doubt the summit with Trump if Pyongyang was pushed toward “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
Moon was scheduled to arrive at the White House at noon for a meeting and a working lunch and due to leave fewer than two hours later.
Trump has insisted he remains committed to the summit. His aides are looking to Moon to help determine whether Kim is taking a harder line against denuclearization than South Korea had previously communicated to them, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Other U.S. officials have privately expressed concern that Moon, eager to make progress with the North, may have overstated Kim’s willingness to negotiate in good faith over the dismantling of his nuclear arsenal.
Two visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the past two months have apparently failed to yield much clarity on Kim’s intentions. Pompeo planned to be at the White House on Tuesday for the meetings with Moon.
Some in the U.S. government worry that Moon may be prepared to accept a less-stringent version of North Korean denuclearization than Washington wants and could be open to faster sanctions relief for Pyongyang, the officials said.
Most analysts say it is unrealistic to believe North Korea will agree to complete abandonment of its nuclear program, which has focused on developing a missile capable of hitting the United States and which Kim sees as crucial to his survival in power.
North Korea’s push for nuclear weapons has long created tension on the peninsula and antagonism with the United States. Tensions escalated last year as Pyongyang tested missiles believed capable of hitting the United States. Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary and derided Kim as “little rocket man” before talk of the Trump-Kim summit eased the pressure.