The White House tried to swat away criticism Friday that the U.S. is getting nothing in exchange for agreeing to a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said North Korea has made promises to denuclearize, stop its nuclear and missile testing and allow joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
“Let’s not forget that the North Koreans did promise something,” Sanders said, responding to a reporter’s question about why Trump agreed to summit without preconditions.
She added: “We are not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea.”
It was not clear whether the comments would add a wrinkle to plans, announced Thursday, for an unprecedented meeting between leaders of the antagonistic nations. North Korea’s government has yet to formally comment on its invitation that was relayed to Trump by South Korean officials who met with Kim in Pyongyang this week.
The South Koreans, briefing Trump at the White House on Thursday, relayed that the North Korean leader expressed a commitment to denuclearization, a top demand of Trump and U.S. allies. However, that would be a subject of negotiation, not a precondition for the meeting.
Kim also pledged to halt nuclear and missile testing, after conducting a string of such tests during Trump’s first year in office, the South Koreans said, and expressed an eagerness to meet Trump. They said the president agreed to meet Kim by May, and the White House later confirmed the president’s decision. However, Sanders said no time and place had been set. No sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader.
The White House said Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against North Korea — tough sanctions and diplomatic isolation — compelled the reclusive nation to reach out for presidential-level talks, validating the Trump administration’s hard-line strategy of economic penalties and bellicose barbs.
“North Korea’s desire to meet to discuss denuclearization — while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing — is evidence that President Trump’s strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working,” Vice President Mike Pence, who has visited the region, said Friday in a written statement.
Pence said the North Koreans are coming to the table despite receiving “zero concessions” from the U.S.
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Trump had discussed his decision with a “handful” of lawmakers, but wouldn’t reveal names. Short said the administration was cautious about the meeting, but Congress was responding with “excitement and encouragement.”
A meeting between the leaders would have been an unthinkable suggestion just a few months ago, when the insults between them were at their peak. Trump was a “senile dotard,” and the North was snapping off regular weapons tests in its quest for a viable nuclear arsenal that can threaten the U.S. mainland.
Liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who some believe has maneuvered the two leaders to this position, declared Friday that the planned summit will be a “historical milestone” that will put the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula “really on track.”
But there’s also considerable skepticism.
North Korea has made a habit of reaching out, after raising fears during previous crises, with offers of dialogue meant to win aid and concessions. Some speculate that the North is trying to peel Washington away from its ally Seoul, weaken crippling sanctions and buy time for nuclear development. It has also, from the U.S. point of view, repeatedly cheated on past nuclear deals.
The North wants a peace treaty to end the technically still-active Korean War and drive all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, removing what it says is a hostile encirclement of its territory by Washington and Seoul.
Trump’s hastily reached decision to accept the meeting sent White House staff scrambling.
On Thursday, South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong had briefed U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other agency representatives, according to White House officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Once McMaster heard what was on the table, the group went to the Oval Office to brief Trump.
After Trump decided he would meet with Kim, he stuck his head into the White House press briefing room to alert reporters to an upcoming “major statement” by South Korea.
Hours later, on the White House driveway at night, Chung told reporters that Kim had “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible” and that “President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
“Great progress being made,” Trump tweeted after the announcement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday in Djibouti that Trump decided for himself to meet with Kim, and that it resulted from a sharp change in the North Korean leader’s stance.
“What changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way. It was a surprise to us that he was so forward-leaning,” Tillerson said of Kim. He said it would take “some weeks” before the timing for the meeting is worked out.
Trump took office vowing to stop North Korea from its pursuit of a working long-range nuclear-tipped missile. He’s oscillated between threats and insults directed at Kim and more conciliatory rhetoric.
The historic announcement comes during a period of unparalleled tumult in the Trump’s West Wing, with the president’s policy agenda stalled and morale sinking as staff departures proliferate and disrupt efforts to instill more discipline and order.