US President Donald Trump has done little to quell mounting uncertainty surrounding a hallmark meeting with North Korea’s leader planned for next month, as he held key talks with his South Korean counterpart at the White House.
Trump is scheduled to meet Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, but in recent weeks there have been growing concerns that the summit will not go ahead as scheduled.
“If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later,” Trump said of the planned meeting, addressing reporters alongside Moon Jae-in.
Asked to offer more details, the US president, who earlier this month withdrew from a multinational nuclear deal with Iran, muddied waters even further.
“There’s a chance that it will work out,” said Trump. “There’s a chance, there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out,” he added.
“There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”
‘A lot of uncertainty’
Moon’s visit to the US had been seen as an opportunity to help fine-tune Trump’s strategy for talks with Kim in June, but a dramatic about-turn by Pyongyang last week added to the sense that the summit might collapse.
Last week, after a period of seemingly warming relations on the Korean Peninsula, marked by an historic inter-Korea summit in April, Pyongyang suspended talks with Seoul due to its hosting of a joint military drill with the US.
North Korea, which has reportedly started dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, also threatened to pull out of the Singapore summit if the US continues to demand it gives up its nuclear arsenal unilaterally.
Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement last week that Pyongyang would “no longer be interested” in dialogue if the US “is trying to drive us into a corner”.
In particular, Pyongyang is concerned about a continued US military presence on the Korean Peninsula and Washington’s so-called nuclear deterrence umbrella in South Korea and Japan.
More than 24,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea, according to Department of Defence figures from 2016.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, argued that threats made by the two sides to abandon the Singapore summit were likely little more than diplomatic posturing.
“The events of the past week are elements of a negotiation process – [now] both sides have delivered their going-in positions,” Snyder told Al Jazeera.
“The North Korea issue offers [Trump] the opportunity for such a distinctive accomplishment that it would be powerful ammunition to refute critics who on many other issues have panned his administration’s impact on the US’ global role.”
“[But] it’s unlikely the US is going to achieve its goal of comprehensive, verifiable denuclearisation and so the likely outcome is somewhere in between. The question is, where?”
Pyongyang tracks back
For his part, Moon said in Washington, DC, that the “fate and future” of the peninsula is hinged on the potentially historic planned meeting.
South Korea has offered to mediate between the two sides to ensure the summit – the first meeting between a sitting US president and North Korean leader – goes ahead.
Referring to those who have raised doubts about the planned event, Moon said that all parties must not assume that because similar efforts had “failed in the past, [they] will fail again”.
Later on Tuesday, Moon’s spokesperson Yoon Young-chan said inter-Korean talks originally scheduled for May 16, but cancelled by Pyongyang a day before, would likely resume after May 25, following completion of the joint US-South Korea military drills.
Referring to Moon’s meeting with Trump, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said there was a sense of a “salvage effort” being made to try and ensure the Singapore summit goes ahead.
“[But] certainly there is a lot of doubt that seems to be intensifying with the hour,” Halkett said, reporting from the White House.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said, however, that Trump didn’t “want to look like he wants this summit more than Kim does”.
“It’s a smart move to say that he is willing to postpone. But to be credible, the president really has to be willing to walk away and I’m not sure he is,” Glaser told Reuters news agency.