President Donald Trump cast his Tuesday summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a “one-time shot” for the autocratic leader to ditch his nuclear weapons and enter the community of nations, saying he would know within moments if Kim is serious about the talks.
Trump said Saturday he was embarking on a “mission of peace,” as he departed the Group of Seven meeting in Canada to fly to the summit site in Singapore. Saying he has a “clear objective in mind” to convince Kim to abandon his nuclear program in exchange for unspecified “protections” from the U.S., Trump acknowledged that the direction of the high-stakes meeting is unpredictable, adding it “will always be spur of the moment.”
“It’s unknown territory in the truest sense, but I really feel confident,” he told reporters. “I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people and he has that opportunity and he won’t have that opportunity again.”
“It’s a one-time shot and I think it’s going to work out very well,” he said.
The meeting will be the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Unlike traditional summits between heads of state, where most of the work is completed in advance of a photo-op, U.S. officials say the only thing certain ahead of these talks will be their unpredictability.
Raising expectations in advance of the meeting, Trump said the outcome will rely heavily on his own instincts. The U.S. president, who prides himself on his deal-making prowess, said he will know “within the first minute” of meeting Kim whether the North Korean leader is serious about the nuclear negotiations.
“I think I’ll know pretty quickly whether or not, in my opinion, something positive will happen. And if I think it won’t happen, I’m not going to waste my time. I don’t want to waste his time,” Trump said.
“This is a leader who really is an unknown personality,” Trump added of Kim. “People don’t know much about him. I think that he’s going to surprise on the upside, very much on the upside.”
The Kim sit-down comes as Trump’s international negotiating skills have faced their toughest tests to date with mixed results. Tensions flared at the G-7 summit between Trump and U.S. allies over his protectionist economic policies and decisions to exit the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord.
Trump rated his relationships with U.S. partners as “a 10,” though erstwhile allies spent much of the weekend directly challenging Trump’s policy positions.
As he looks to the Kim meeting, Trump is taking a high-stakes risk in hopes of containing the increasingly challenging national security threats from North Korea’s advanced nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Seeing Nobel Peace Prize laurels and eyeing potential to show up his critics at home and abroad, Trump is granting Kim the international legitimacy he’s long sought in hopes of securing a legacy-defining accord.
“He could take that nation with those great people and truly make it great,” Trump said. “That’s why I feel positive, because it makes so much sense.”
Trump also praised the North Koreans, saying they have been “really working very well with us” during preparations for the summit, even though Trump had canceled the summit last month following a recent period of what he called “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the North Korean government. But then Trump did a quick pivot, signaling almost immediately after scrapping the meeting that he was open to going ahead with it after all.
Delegations from both countries then launched into a frenetic period of negotiations that are expected to culminate with Tuesday’s meeting.
“So far, so good. We’re going to have to see what happens. I very much look forward to it,” Trump said.
Still, questions remain about what a deal on the North’s nuclear weapons could look like.
Trump has said he believes Kim would agree to denuclearization — and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday he had received Kim’s personal assurances to that effect — but the two countries have offered differing visions of what that would entail. Despite Kim’s apparent eagerness for a summit with Trump, there are doubts that he would fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he may see as his guarantee of survival.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have assessed the North to be on the threshold of having the capability to strike anywhere in the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile — a capacity that Trump and other U.S. officials have said they would not tolerate.
Trump reiterated his promise Saturday that the U.S. “will watch over and we’ll protect” Kim and his government in return for him giving up the nuclear program. He also indicated that South Korea, China and Japan would be prepared to invest in the North to boost its besieged economy.