acknowledged new doubts about the fate of his coming meeting with North Korean leader
Kim Jong Un,
expressing surprise over the uptick in harsh language from Pyongyang while shifting blame to China for the latest uncertainty.
Still, the president sought to entice Mr. Kim to the negotiating table by pairing an offer of political safeguards with a fresh round of threats.
Mr. Trump, speaking in the Oval Office on Thursday, said Mr. Kim could remain in power if the two sides reach a deal to rid the North of nuclear weapons. Otherwise, the country should expect “total decimation,” the president said in his first direct threat to the North since the two sides agreed to talks.
“If we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the North Korean leader.
The new sense of uncertainty about the summit came after North Korea spent a second straight day harshly criticizing the U.S. and South Korea, dousing the sense of North-South warmth that had been on display since before the Winter Olympics in February and calling into question the prospect of a U.S.-North Korean meeting.
Administration officials and international experts were unable to say whether the series of ominous and insulting statements by high-ranking North Korean officials merely represented a hardball approach to the coming talks or were a re-evaluation by Pyongyang on the utility of the summit.
Mr. Trump posited that the tough talk stemmed from Mr. Kim’s meeting with Chinese President
last week. The two leaders met for the second time in as many months on May 8, two days before Secretary of State
arrived in North Korea and left with the three U.S. citizens who had been imprisoned there.
“There has been a big difference since they had the second meeting,” Mr. Trump said, adding that “President Xi could be influencing Kim Jong Un.”
Mr. Trump offered no other details to bolster his theory, but argued that no other U.S. president has put similar trade pressures on China. Coincidentally, Chinese officials were in Washington on Thursday on a planned trip to discuss the trade dispute.
Mr. Trump’s negotiations with Mr. Kim come as the U.S. president weighs tariffs on as much as $150 billion of Chinese goods, and Beijing has vowed to respond in kind. Washington and Beijing are also discussing ways to ease tough U.S. penalties on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp.
China has generally backed North Korea’s preference for a step-by-step denuclearization approach, while the Trump administration has insisted on speedy denuclearization.
Others saw North Korea’s repeated denunciations of U.S.-South Korean air drills as an attempt by Pyongyang to persuade South Korea that its military alliance with the U.S. is an obstacle to peace.
“They are laying the foundation for the argument that South Korea’s alliance with a nuclear superpower is an obstacle to denuclearization and that both sides will need to take reciprocal steps to disarm,” said
a former State Department official and now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “And they are also warning the South Koreans that the alliance is an obstacle to the inter-Korean rapprochement that President Moon is pursuing.”
North Korea earlier in the day said it would shelve inter-Korean talks indefinitely unless Seoul made concessions on military exercises and dialed back its public criticism of the North’s attempts at dialogue.
Gwon, a senior North Korean official, slammed South Korea’s liberal Moon Jae-in administration as “an ignorant and incompetent group devoid of the elementary sense of the present situation.”
A day earlier,
Kim Kye Gwan,
a senior foreign ministry official, said Pyongyang wasn’t interested in a summit focused solely on denuclearization and accused Washington of trying to “impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq.”
White House national-security adviser
repeatedly has said the administration was considering a Libyan model for quick disarmament, saying North Korea would need to agree to a similar deal.
North Korea on Wednesday denounced the comparison as insulting and “sinister.” The fact that Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s strongman, was overthrown and killed by rebels in 2011 also makes the comparison objectionable to North Korea.
Mr. Trump, addressing those concerns on Thursday, contradicted Mr. Bolton and said the White House didn’t consider the 2003 Libyan negotiations a template. Mr. Trump, like the North, pointed out that Libya had been “decimated” by international military intervention eight years after stemming its nuclear ambitions.
“There was no deal to keep Gadhafi,” Mr. Trump said. But under a U.S.-North Korea agreement, he said, Mr. Kim would continue “running his country” with security guarantees and “very adequate protection” from the U.S. “His country would be very rich.”
The president had conflated Libya’s denuclearization with the military intervention in Libya led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nearly a decade later. But he also used the comparison to issue a stern warning to the North.
“If you look at that model with Gadhafi, that was a total decimation—we went in there to beat him,” Mr. Trump said. “Now, that model would take place [in North Korea] if we don’t make a deal, most likely.”
The heightened rhetoric was the first sign of increasing tension since Washington and Pyongyang agreed in March to plan a meeting.
Mr. Trump, after repeatedly ridiculing Mr. Kim’s appearance and nuclear ambitions, has praised the North Korea leader more recently. The latest signs of bonhomie were at an early morning event at Joint Base Andrews last week when the Trump administration welcomed home the three U.S. citizens who had been held captive in North Korea.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump expressed surprise at North Korea, saying Pyongyang has remained in contact with Washington “as though nothing happened’s harsh words.” He said talks continued between the two administrations over the logistical and substantive issues around their summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
“If the meeting happens, it happens,” he said. “And if it doesn’t, we go on to the next step.”
Seoul, like Washington, reacted to North Korea’s outburst in relatively measured tones, expressing its intention to continue to push toward a summit meeting.
The North’s statements on Thursday took direct aim at the Moon administration, which has pushed consistently for dialogue with Pyongyang, even as conservatives here have accused him of being too cozy with the regime.
a former South Korean intelligence official, predicted that the North’s more aggressive demands could delay, or even scuttle, the planned Trump-Kim summit.
“By blaming South Korea, North Korea is not only dividing Seoul and Washington, it’s also putting Moon Jae-in into a corner, because now he’s probably unsure as to what to do,” Mr. Nam said.
—Andrew Jeong in Seoul and Michael R. Gordon and Chris Gordon in Washington contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
North Korean official Ri Son Gwon’s name was misspelled as Ri Son Gown in an earlier version of this article.