SEOUL - Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s expressed willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon as neither side is prepared to offer any concessions to warrant such a high level summit.
When Trump on Monday said he would be "honored" to meet the North's young leader, in an interview with Bloomberg News, he also added the caveat, “under the right circumstances I would meet with him.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer later clarified that "clearly conditions are not there right now."
Following Trump’s conditional offer of dialogue with Kim, the U.S. flew two supersonic B-1B Lancer bombers near the inter-Korean border Tuesday during a training exercise with the South Korean air force. The North’s official KCNA news agency responded to the joint drill by accusing the U.S. of “pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula closer to the brink of nuclear war."
Tensions on the Korean peninsula remain high as the Trump administration has stepped up efforts to restrain Pyongyang from further nuclear tests by pressing China to increase sanctions and by emphasizing a willingness to use military force if needed.
The U.S. and its allies have long held that talks with North Korea be contingent on Pyongyang first halting nuclear and ballistic missile tests and agreeing to discuss nuclear disarmament.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that a Trump-Kim summit should meet the same conditions.
“With regards to (President Trump's comments), both South Korea and the U.S. consistently maintain the position that to open the door to talks, North Korea must move forward toward denuclearization, which is the right way,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck.
North Korea for its part has called on the U.S. to halt all joint military exercises with South Korea and agree to a formal peace treaty to ultimately end the American presence on the Korean peninsula, in exchange for suspending further nuclear tests.
For a Trump-Kim meeting to happen, some progress towards a North Korean nuclear freeze and a U.S. halt to joint drills would first likely need to be made, but that would take months of intense advance negotiations between two sides that have currently severed all lines of official communication.
“The president was right when he said ‘under the right conditions,’ but I don’t see those conditions coming to fruition in a short period of time,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Northeast Asia analyst and lecturer in international relations with Troy University in Seoul.
The Trump administration also has yet to put in place an experienced East Asia team in the State Department, Defense Department and has not yet named key ambassadors in the region that would be needed to mount such a major diplomatic initiative.
There is also the question of Kim Jong Un’s relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His father Kim Jong Il often visited Beijing and maintained close relations with the Chinese leadership. But the young North Korean leader has yet to visit his closest ally and key economic supporter.
“That relationship is in the deep freeze and it is somewhat dysfunctional right now,” said Pinkston.
Analysts say Xi will not meet with Kim until the North Korean leader agrees to nuclear disarmament talks, and Kim cannot meet with another world leader for fear of further alienating the Chinese leadership.
South Korea deterrence
The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, was also in South Korea for meetings with South Korean intelligence officials and U.S. Forces in Korea.
The U.S. confirmed Tuesday that its THAAD advanced missile defense system has been put into operation, despite strong objections from China, some public protests in South Korea, and a sudden demand from President Trump that South Korea pay $1 billion for it, a demand that Seoul rejected.
And an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, has been sent to waters off the Korean peninsula to conduct drills with South Korea and Japan.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.