Citing North Korea’s pledge to suspend missile and nuclear tests, President Trump says efforts to compel the secretive nation to abandon its nuclear weapons program are starting to pay off — though he acknowledged Sunday that talks with Kim Jong-un still have a long way to go.
Mr. Kim said he has suspended all missile tests and shut down a nuclear test site as of Saturday, according to state media.
The North Korean leader is preparing for a historic summit with Mr. Trump in late May or early June.
The president hailed the moves as “big progress” but then reeled in expectations, saying he is playing catch-up after his recent predecessors failed to stamp out the threat.
“Maybe things will work out, and maybe they won’t — only time will tell,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter. “But the work I am doing now should have been done a long time ago!”
Mr. Trump’s goal is denuclearization of the communist nation, which also has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles and raised threats against the U.S. and its allies.
Key lawmakers said they were pleased with recent progress but urged Mr. Trump to be cautious. They are worried that Mr. Kim will never give up his nuclear ambitions, so he is employing a public relations effort for now.
“He views having deliverable nuclear weapons as his ticket to dying as an old man in his bed,” Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told ABC’s “This Week.” “He saw what happened with [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi. Gadhafi’s a dead man now because he gave up his nuclear weapons.”
Mr. Kim sent a mixed message by praising his country’s rapid development of such weapons. He called the completion of the nuclear missile program a “miraculous victory” that was “perfectly accomplished … in a short span of less than five years.”
Mr. Corker said it’s important to keep that in mind.
“To think that someone is going to go in and charm him out of this is not realistic,” said Mr. Corker, Tennessee Republican. “Is there some progress that can be made? I hope so. But you know, that’s a big hurdle.”
The president revealed last week that he had dispatched CIA Director Mike Pompeo this month to meet with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang to help lay the groundwork for a summit between the two leaders. Mr. Pompeo is Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state.
In another potential breakthrough, Mr. Kim will hold a summit next week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two sides are pursuing a formal peace treaty to end their war, which began in 1950.
Mr. Trump has said that persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear program would be a “tremendous thing” for the region and whole world, though he has insisted that he is ready to leave the bargaining table if Mr. Kim doesn’t negotiate in good faith.
“We are cautious. You heard the president say many times, ‘We’re going to keep up maximum pressure,’” Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’re not going to stop that until they denuclearize. So as far as having the meeting, he’s also said, ‘I can walk away from the table.’”
Mr. Trump has said he is trying to succeed where his predecessors have failed.
The Clinton administration reached a major nuclear agreement with Pyongyang in October 1994, ending months of war fears triggered by North Korea’s threat to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and convert its stockpile of nuclear fuel into bombs.
North Korea halted construction of two reactors that the United States suspected were for nuclear weapons production in return for two alternative nuclear power reactors that could be used to provide electricity but not bomb fuel, and 500,000 metric tons of fuel oil annually for the North.
Yet Pyongyang complained about delayed oil shipments and construction of the reactors, which were never delivered. The United States criticized the North’s pursuit of ballistic missile capability, demonstrated in the launch of a two-stage rocket over Japan in 1998.
The framework further lost political support in Washington with the inauguration of George W. Bush, who in his first State of the Union address in January 2002 grouped North Korea with Iran and Iraq as parts of an “axis of evil.”
The deal collapsed for good months later after U.S. officials confronted North Korea over a clandestine nuclear program using enriched uranium. Washington stopped the oil shipments, and Pyongyang restarted its nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Bush then used a mix of threats and promises of aid to try to reel in North Korea, but he came up short. A final attempt by Mr. Bush to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed in December 2008, when the North refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.
In February 2012, months after taking power following the death of his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reached a deal with the Obama administration to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests and uranium enrichment and to allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear activities in exchange for U.S. food aid.
The U.S. killed the deal in April 2012 after the North launched a long-range rocket that it claimed was built for delivering satellites. The outside world saw the failed launch as a prohibited test of ballistic missile technology.
The North criticized the United States of overreacting and launched another long-range rocket in December 2012 that it said successfully delivered a satellite into orbit.
North Korea is reaching out diplomatically after a flurry of weapons tests last year, including the underground detonation of a suspected thermonuclear warhead and three launches of developmental ICBMs designed to strike the U.S. mainland.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and a key Trump ally, said twin pressures from Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo have given the U.S. leverage.
“For the first time, North Korea has been put on the back foot,” Mr. Cotton told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
But plenty of work remains. Mr. Cotton said three Americans in North Korean custody should be released as part of the emerging talks.
“I hope that will happen before this summit occurs,” he said.
No nuclear tests are better than continuing tests, he said, “but it’s not much better than that.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.