SEOUL - Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.
The latest exchange of letters between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has raised hopes of restarting stalled nuclear talks.
But will it lead to a third summit between Trump and Kim during the U.S. president’s visit to South Korea later this week? It depends on who you ask.
Though U.S. officials have de-emphasized the possibility of an impending Trump-Kim summit, hopes are high in Seoul for a possible breakthrough.
In an interview released Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said North Korea and the United States “have been engaged in dialogue in regard to a third summit.”
Moon did not say who is involved in those discussions or when a possible third summit would be held. U.S. State Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump arrives in South Korea late Saturday and is expected to stay for just 24 hours. A senior White House official said this week there are no plans for a meeting with Kim.
“He’s there to see President Moon,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip. “They’ve got a lot of ground to cover in two days, and then (Trump) is coming back to (Washington) DC.”
That hasn’t stopped speculation that Trump, who values unpredictability and routinely overrules his advisors, may meet Kim during the visit. The rumors intensified after the two men's latest correspondence.
“Just a nice letter back and forth,” Trump said Tuesday of his exchange with Kim. “He wrote me a beautiful letter on my birthday.” Asked whether the letters mentioned another summit, Trump replied: “Maybe," adding he will meet again with Kim “at some point.”
Kim last week said he was “seriously contemplating” the “interesting” and “excellent” content of Trump’s latest letter, according to North Korean state media.
Raising further intrigue, South Korea’s President Moon said earlier this month that Trump’s letter to Kim contained a “very interesting part,” though he refused to reveal any details.
Both Trump and Kim have said they are open to an eventual third meeting, even while hardening their stances following a failed second summit in February in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Trump is looking for a "big deal" under which Kim would agree to completely abandon his nuclear weapons. Kim, eager to receive sanctions relief, prefers an incremental approach and has given the United States until the end of the year to become more accommodating.
Neither side has publicly softened their stance. And with working level talks stalled, it’s not clear what another Trump-Kim summit could accomplish, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Absent working-level negotiations for a verifiable freeze in fissile material production, further summits with Kim run the risk of appearing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state and normalizing its sanctions violating behavior,” said Easley.
In an interview with the U.S. cable news network Fox News earlier this week, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., said the U.S. intelligence community continues to assess that Kim “is not ready to denuclearize."
U.S. officials have also acknowledged that the United States and North Korea do not share a common definition of “denuclearization." That, despite Trump and Kim agreeing in Singapore last June to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
“The hypothesis that a ‘top-down approach’ can realize denuclearization has been tested,” said Easley. “North Korea has more nuclear capabilities today than it did a year ago.”
A DMZ visit?
But if Trump wants to push ahead with another summit, his upcoming visit to Korea could provide a dramatic backdrop.
South Korean officials say Trump is considering a stop somewhere along the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.
Visiting U.S. presidents often tour the Joint Security Area, or JSA. It is the only place along the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers can stand face-to-face. The area, also known as the Panmunjom truce village, has long been mentioned as a possible venue for a Trump-Kim summit.
"If they meet in Panmunjom, the location will deliver a powerful message," said Yun Jiwon, professor of international politics at Seoul's Sangmyung University.
Under President Moon, South Korea has tried to convert the JSA from a symbol of separation into one that celebrates unity. Guard posts and weapons have been removed, and the JSA now includes memorials marking the spot where Moon and Kim first met in 2018.
While the odds of a Trump-Kim meeting are "very low," Yun said, Trump could still use a DMZ visit "to provide a message about permanent peace in the Korean peninsula, the momentum of peace."
It wouldn’t be the first time Trump tried to visit the border with North Korea. During a 2017 visit to South Korea, Trump canceled a surprise stop at the DMZ after heavy fog complicated what would have been a short helicopter ride.
That visit, Trump’s first to South Korea as president, came as Kim and Trump routinely exchanged personal insults and threats of nuclear war.
This time, the mood is much different. Both men tout their close relationship and are apparently eager to continue high-level talks.
Trump, who is stopping in South Korea after attending the G-20 summit in neighboring Japan, is bringing along a high-level delegation, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun.
While such a presidential delegation is not unprecedented, it has drawn the attention of some Korea watchers.
“Quite a cast of characters ahead of a post-G20 POTUS trip to South Korea, en route home to the U.S.,” Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, said on Twitter.
Others shrugged off such speculation, saying Trump is purposefully dangling the possibility of another summit in order to get attention.
“This is like the buildup to The Apprentice finale,” tweeted Vipin Narang, a Korea watcher and nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A lot of intrigue and drama, but that was ultimately an extreme letdown. We actually play right into Trump’s hand by tuning in and hanging on to every word. Someone let us know how this ends.”