WHITE HOUSE - White House officials on Friday confirmed that planning for an unprecedented summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea remains on track and also indicated Washington and Pyongyang are engaged in direct communication about it.
A senior administration official characterizes the chances of the meeting happening as "likely," explaining "there is an inter-agency and tightly-held process that's been under way for several weeks now."
The official also told a reporter in response to a question about direct planning discussions with North Korean officials that "communication will, by definition, have to be sufficient for us to establish and prepare for a successful summit."
The anticipated summit is to be a major topic of discussion next week when U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the president's private resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, for what officials are calling a "working visit."
The Japanese are among the most nervous of American allies about the Trump-Kim summit, worrying that their national interests might not be taken into sufficient consideration if a security agreement is reached between the United States and North Korea.
The senior White House official denied that Abe has tried to talk Trump out of meeting with Kim.
Trump and Abe have met and spoken on the phone quite frequently about North Korea and other topics.
The president "will certainly want to know what additional thoughts Prime Minister Abe has beyond those that he's has already shared because they've been in constant contact in recent weeks since President Trump accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un," the senior official told reporters. "They will go into some detail, for sure, on that."
Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, had substantive talks on North Korea with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, according to administration officials. Those discussions also included preparations for next week's Trump-Abe meeting.
North Korea, under numerous international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, has no diplomatic relations with Japan, South Korea or the United States.
Besides the North Korean issue, Trump and Abe are also to discuss their differences on trade issues.
Asked if the president will push the prime minister for a bilateral free trade agreement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders replied: "I'm not going to get ahead of the president's conversations with Prime Minister Abe, but trade will certainly be something that is discussed, as well as the ongoing conversations around North Korea."
Thanks to their frequent face-to-face meetings, Trump and Abe have a solid relationship, which allows for flexible discussions on policy matters," U.S.-Japan Council President Irene Hirano tells VOA. "I am optimistic that they will find areas of mutual agreement on both trade and security."
Japan and the United States, under the Obama administration, were at the forefront of a sweeping 12-nation trade agreement that took years to negotiate. But Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
However, the U.S. president in recent days has expressed interest in possibly rejoining TPP.
"Would only join TPP if the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama," Trump tweeted Thursday evening.
Media reports say the president has mused in conversations to others whether he "screwed up" by pulling out of the trade pact, giving an advantage to China (which is not a TPP signatory) at a time the United States is trying to pressure Beijing into reducing tariffs on American products.
Asked by VOA about the veracity of those media reports, the senior U.S. official responded, "I'm not aware of any reference along the lines as you have characterized them."