U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday that he’s not prioritizing North Korea quickly giving up its nuclear weapons in a brief statement before more talks with the pariah state’s autocratic leader, Kim Jong Un.
Instead, Trump said he is pleased that there was no evidence North Korea had not conducted nuclear or ballistic missile tests in more than a year.
“Speed is not that important to me,” the president said. “I very much appreciate no testing of nuclear rockets, missiles, any of it — very much appreciate it.”
“I am in no rush — just we don’t want the testing and we’ve developed something very special with respect to that,” Trump added.
That marked a step back from Trump’s claim last year that Pyongyang would begin relinquishing its nuclear capabilities “very, very quickly.” In fact, the president repeatedly emphasized Thursday morning that he was not looking to find a solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat by the end of this week’s summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“No rush. No rush. No rush. There’s no rush, we just want to do the right deal. Chairman Kim and myself we want to do the right deal. Speed is not important, what’s important is that we do the right deal,” Trump said.
Kim, for his part, said through a translator that “it’s too early to tell, but I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic. For what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come out.”
Analysts have noted over the last week that Trump’s position on North Korea’s nuclear weapons appeared softer than his earlier stance. Some, including a former national security advisor to former President Barack Obama, have argued that it is actually allowing Kim’s regime to grow more dangerous.
Steve Okun, senior advisor at U.S.-based consulting firm McLarty Associates, said Trump’s comments so far in the summit indicate his administration is taking “many steps back from saying, ‘Until we get clear, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, we’re not going to move forward.'”
“Now this is back to a step-for-step — this is no different than where the Obama administration would have been, or where the Clinton administration was, or where the Bush administration was,” Okun told CNBC on Thursday. “So we’re seeing the same game play out.”
The day ahead
The two leaders headed into a day that includes a one-on-one talk, an expanded bilateral meeting and a working lunch. They’re also scheduled to participate in a joint signing ceremony later in the afternoon local time, which indicates there’s already been extensive groundwork laid before the summit for some sort of package deal.
Although both sides say they’ve been making progress in recent months toward a mutually agreeable solution, this round of top-level talks talks is focusing on many of the same issues as last June’s Singapore summit.
Trump is pushing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons as he dangles the prospect of an economic boost to the repressive isolated country. Kim wants to see sanctions eased without losing the strategic benefits of his weapons of mass destruction.
Trump and Kim met on Wednesday night for a brief dialogue and then were joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and two North Korean officials for what the White House deemed a “social dinner.”
“What you’re going to see is some sort of incremental deal — certainly the president will call it historic because he calls all of his deals historic — but it’s going to be incremental.”
During two brief statements to reporters before dinner, Trump emphasized his personal connection with the dictator, saying that their bond had made “the biggest progress” and that he considers it “a very special relationship.”
“Your country has tremendous economic potential — unbelievable, unlimited — and I think that you will have a tremendous future with your country, a great leader,” Trump said before the Wednesday dinner, looking directly at his North Korean counterpart. “I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen — and we will help it to happen.”
That sentiment matched Trump’s recent messaging on the North Korea situation, which is that North Korea could realize a “thriving” economy if only it plays ball with the U.S.
In his statements kicking off Thursday’s talks, Trump again attempted to sell Kim on a vision of economic possibilities.
“I have great respect for his country and I believe that it will be something economically that will be almost hard to compete with for many countries — it has such potential,” Trump said.
Much of the news from the summit is expected to come from Trump’s scheduled afternoon press conference and from the anticipated reveal of some sort of U.S.-North Korea joint agreement.
That was how Trump and Kim closed their summit in Singapore last June. The leaders held a signing ceremony for a declaration that said both sides would commit to establishing better relations and that North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Last year’s meeting marked the first in-person meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean head of state.
Trump heralded that agreement as “very comprehensive,” but outside observers played down its importance because of a recurring diplomatic issue with Pyongyang: North Korea has a different definition for “denuclearization” than others.
Pyongyang has said in the past it may denuclearize only if certain conditions were fulfilled. Those include the U.S. withdrawing troops from South Korea as well as ending the U.S. regional nuclear umbrella, a security arrangement in which Washington promises in-kind retaliation on behalf of close allies if they are attacked with nuclear weapons.
American and North Korean sides still appear far apart on the idea of North Korea getting rid of its nuclear weapons.
“So far, North Korea seems only willing to take measures that limit its nuclear and missile capabilities — it has no indications that it wants to roll back or undercut its existing nuclear arsenal or missile arsenal,” Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told CNBC on Tuesday.
Reports since the last Trump-Kim summit suggest North Korean forces are continuing to develop missile technology and nuclear weapons in secret facilities. A U.S. intelligence report last month said North Korea was “unlikely to give up” its weapons of mass destruction, missiles or production capability.
“For both leaders, a limited amount of progress is going to be success enough … This, I think, is a kind of continuity summit.”
Trump has repeatedly pointed out that no one has detected North Korea testing nuclear devices or ballistic missiles since his administration began engaging with the Kim regime in earnest.
For a period in 2017 — Trump’s first year in office — North Korea created global anxiety by testing missiles at least once a month and directing regular threats toward the United States and others. Trump declared in August 2017 that such threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Pyongyang is last known to have conducted a nuclear test in September 2017 and an intercontinental ballistic missile test in November 2017.
As Kim and Trump face off in Hanoi, analysts say neither is politically incentivized to aim for big concessions.
“For both leaders, a limited amount of progress is going to be success enough,” Richard Fenning, CEO of risk consultancy Control Risks, said Wednesday. “This, I think, is a kind of continuity summit.”
Fenning and others have forecast that Thursday’s talks will likely conclude with an agreement that includes opening representative offices in each other’s countries and potentially some move to officially declare an end to the Korean War (the fighting stopped in 1953 following an armistice).
Okun, also suggested that the day’s meetings are likely to end with some sort of peace declaration — not a peace treaty because that requires input from China and South Korea, too — and promises of liaison offices and maybe a road map for future discussions.
“Maybe we will get some type of further commitment on no testing or no more production, but it’s not going to be detailed, it’s not going to have a road map that’s going to lead to denuclearization. No one expects that,” Okun said Thursday. “So what you’re going to see is some sort of incremental deal — certainly the president will call it historic because he calls all of his deals historic — but it’s going to be incremental.”
Trump previewed his lowered expectations for the Hanoi summit in a statement last week from the Oval Office.
“Well, I’d just like to see, ultimately, denuclearization of North Korea. I think we will see that ultimately. I have no pressing time schedule,” he said at the time. “And I think a lot of people would like to see it go very quickly from the other side.”
“But I’m in no rush. There’s no testing,” Trump added. “As long as there’s not testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal.”
Still, before his Wednesday dinner with Kim, Trump said in a Twitter post that he remained committed to pursuing denuclearization.
Donald J. Trump tweet: All false reporting (guessing) on my intentions with respect to North Korea. Kim Jong Un and I will try very hard to work something out on Denuclearization & then making North Korea an Economic Powerhouse. I believe that China, Russia, Japan & South Korea will be very helpful!
What does North Korea want?
As for North Korea’s goals, analysts said the country is probably willing to remove some capabilities it no longer needs and may agree not to increase the size of its arsenal. But Kim won’t give up his nuclear weapons, they said.
Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted during a discussion in Washington last week that Kim’s approach will be to “actually not really giving up anything.” At the same time, he’ll have “clear demands for the United States to give up things very much in the present” possibly including military exercises, troop deployments and sanctions.
North Korea currently faces United Nations sanctions and separate sanctions from the United States. The UN blocks some imports and exports and has frozen the assets of individuals connected with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The United States restricts the North Korean economy further and targets more individuals.
—CNBC’s Huileng Tan contributed to this report.