updated at 12:46 pm ET
President Trump meets Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two men are partners in an effort to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
The White House meeting is a chance for Trump and Moon to strategize before a planned summit in Singapore June 12 between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
That meeting has been called into question, after North Korea suggested it’s not willing to give up its nuclear weapons.
“It may not work out for June 12,” Trump told reporters during an Oval Office photo opp with Moon. “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later.”
Trump declined to say whether he’d spoken personally with the North Korean leader.
Earlier, South Korea’s national security director told reporters his country is confident the Trump-Kim meeting will go forward.
“We believe there is a 99.9 percent chance the North Korea-U.S. summit will be held as scheduled,” said Chung Eui-yong. “But we’re just preparing for many different possibilities.”
Chung added that officials in Washington and Seoul have been coordinating closely in advance of the summit.
“South Korea and the U.S. have been sharing every bit of information,” he said.
“Anybody who’s looked at this issue for years knows that you don’t get fairytale endings with North Korea,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert in the George W. Bush administration who was considered for a post as Trump’s ambassador to Seoul. “It tends to be a lot more difficult and rocky and dirty and suspense-filled.”
Even if the meeting between Trump and Kim does take place, the U.S. and South Korea are potentially divided over what should happen next. The Trump administration insists that North Korea must completely dismantle its nuclear program before getting any relief from economic sanctions. South Korea, on the other hand, might be willing to go along with a more phased approach, in which Pyongyang is rewarded for intermediate steps. That’s one of the issues Trump and Moon will have to discuss.
“Moon is a resourceful politician. He’s played his cards very well. But there’s just so much that could go off the rails here when and if Trump does, in fact, go to Singapore,” said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
South Korea has embraced the Trump administration policy of maximum economic pressure towards Pyongyang, even though leaders in Seoul were wary of some of Trump’s more bellicose rhetoric.
“Whenever that discussion moved to talk of possible military action, I think that’s where the South Korean government was not on board,” Cha said.
South Korean officials have regularly praised Trump for his diplomatic prowess, even suggesting that a Nobel Peace Prize might be in his future. When North Korea’s Kim issued his surprise invitation for a summit with Trump, South Korea said the U.S. president deserved most of the credit.
“His leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture,” Chung told reporters outside the White House in March.
Trump hasn’t always been on such friendly terms with South Korea. During the 2016 presidential campaign and since, Trump has complained about what he sees as that country’s free-loading reliance on U.S. military might.
“You look at what the world is doing to us at every level, whether it’s militarily or in trade or at so many other levels,” Trump told CNN during the campaign, “the world is taking advantage of the United States.”
South Korea pays about half the cost of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. The country also picked up most of the bill for an $11 billion
expansion of a U.S. military base, 55 miles south of Seoul.
Trump is also unhappy with the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea, which topped $10 billion last year. Two months ago, the U.S. agreed on a revised trade agreement with South Korea. It limits steel imports from that country and extends a tariff on imported pickup trucks.