U.S. President Donald Trump departed for Asia on Wednesday amid keen interest in his next steps in the stalled effort to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump was headed for Osaka, Japan, where he will attend a Group of 20 summit before traveling to South Korea late Saturday for a two-day stay.
It will be his second visit to South Korea as president following the first trip in November 2017. That visit came amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
This time, Trump’s visit follows more than a year of historic diplomacy aimed at getting rid of the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities ― including two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since the second summit in February ended without a deal, and critics argue the diplomacy has yielded little, if any, progress on denuclearization.
When asked by a reporter if he will meet with Kim during his trip, Trump ruled out that option.
“I’ll be meeting with a lot of other people, not by him,” he said before boarding Marine One at the White House. “But I may be speaking to him in a different form.”
Trump did not elaborate.
There was speculation earlier that he could see Kim inside the Demilitarized Zone on the inter-Korean border, but a senior U.S. official denied any plans for a meeting.
A trip to the DMZ, however, is reportedly under consideration.
A Trump visit to the border would have highly symbolic meaning as he could deliver remarks while looking into the isolated regime.
His first attempt to fly to the DMZ by helicopter was foiled by heavy fog in November 2017.
The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not lift sanctions on North Korea until it sees concrete and verifiable steps toward denuclearization.
But some analysts say the two sides will need to reach a compromise or risk escalating tensions and increasing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump, who has touted North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests as one of his biggest foreign policy achievements, will be hard-pressed to accept that risk ahead of the 2020 presidential election, they say.
The Trump administration has also emphasized that any third summit will have to be preceded by working-level talks. Stephen Biegun, the U.S. point man on North Korea, is due in Seoul from Thursday to Sunday, and the possibility he will meet with North Korean negotiators has also been raised.
Trump will hold talks with President Moon Jae-in on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and the bilateral trade relationship, according to officials.
Moon, who has been credited with resuming diplomacy with the isolated regime last year, will likely seek to bridge the gap between North Korea and the U.S. on how to match denuclearization steps with sanctions relief.
Moon said in a written interview Wednesday with Yonhap News Agency and six other global news agencies that North Korea and the U.S. have been in talks over a third summit.
An exchange of personal letters between Trump and Kim this month has raised hopes the talks will resume. (Yonhap)