Only three weeks away from a high-stakes meeting with mercurial North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump acknowledged Tuesday that the odds of their summit taking place as scheduled are as uncertain as the flip of a commemorative coin.
Huddling with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to strategize on the summit with Pyongyang, Mr. Trump told reporters that he is not sure the denuclearization talks will go forward as planned on June 12 in Singapore. He hinted again that China, which is engaged in contentious trade talks with the U.S., may be undermining the North Korea summit.
“It may not work out for June 12th,” Mr. Trump said. “I don’t want to waste a lot of time, and I’m sure [Mr. Kim] doesn’t want to waste a lot of time. So there’s a very substantial chance that it won’t work out.”
Asked by a reporter if the fate of the summit is resting on a coin toss, the president replied, “Yeah.”
It was the most doubt the president has expressed openly about the meeting since North Korea threatened last week to back out. North Korea said it won’t agree to Mr. Trump’s demand to give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally.
A top South Korean official predicted this week that the summit was a “99.9 percent done deal.”
The time frame for North Korean denuclearization also appears to be a sticking point. The U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan are seeking immediate and verifiable removal of Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction, while North Korea is reported to be asking for a longer timetable.
“All in one would be nice,” Mr. Trump said. “You do have some physical reasons that [North Korea] may not be able to do exactly that.”
Seeming to negotiate on camera, Mr. Trump said he is willing to accept Pyongyang’s denuclearization over “a very short period of time.”
“Essentially, that would be all in one,” he said. “There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later told reporters that the Trump administration was still planning for a June 12 summit, although he wouldn’t predict whether it was certain.
A North Korean flight carrying international journalists to cover the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri nuclear test ground left Beijing for North Korea on Tuesday without a group of South Korean reporters originally invited to attend. The nuclear test ground is scheduled to be dismantled sometime before Friday, depending on weather conditions.
The president expressed hope for a summit with Mr. Kim at some point. He said the U.S. is emphasizing to Mr. Kim that an agreement will provide economic benefits to the isolated and heavily sanctioned North Korea.
“He will be extremely happy if something works out,” Mr. Trump said. “He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich, his country will be hardworking and very prosperous.”
The prospect of eventual reunification between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea is also dangling over the summit. Mr. Moon said “the fate and the future of the Korean Peninsula hinges on this.”
“I have every confidence that President Trump will be able to achieve a historic feat of making the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit successful and end the Korean War that has been lasting for the past 65 years,” Mr. Moon said. He also spoke of his hope that the U.S. will normalize relations with North Korea.
North and South Korea have been separated by a Demilitarized Zone since a truce in 1953. Mr. Trump called it “an artificial border” and spoke of the possibility that the countries could “go back to one Korea.”
“It’s going to be largely up to them, as to whether or not they get together,” he said. “I would say that we are looking, certainly, right now, at two Koreas. Two very successful Koreas. But someday in the future, maybe they’ll get together and you’ll go back to one Korea.”
The president also was more direct Tuesday in blaming Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he calls a friend, for causing Mr. Kim’s apparent change of heart about the summit. China is Pyongyang’s main trading partner and has largely worked with the U.S. to enforce economic sanctions on North Korea.
Mr. Kim has visited Beijing twice in two months, and his second trip to China on May 7 caught the U.S. by surprise. It came amid escalating threats of tariffs by China and the U.S. as Mr. Trump seeks to stop what he calls China’s unfair trade practices.
“The second meeting, I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un,” said Mr. Trump, adding that he was disappointed by the meeting. “The second time was like a surprise. I don’t like that. I think things changed after that meeting. So I can’t say that I’m happy about it. I think that President Xi is a world-class poker player.”
Amid such high-level concerns and negotiations, the White House came under criticism for a decidedly more trivial aspect of the planned June 12 summit: a commemorative “challenge coin” marking the historic event. It features images of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, and is inscribed with the North Korean’s title of “supreme leader.”
Some critics on social media said it was un-American to commemorate Mr. Kim, who has an abysmal human rights record.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called on the White House to remove the image of a “brutal dictator” from the coin.
“I urge the White House to take Kim off the coin,” Mr. Schumer said. “Challenge coins are a time-honored tradition and certainly appropriate in this situation, but Kim Jong-un’s face has no place on this coin.”
He suggested that a more appropriate image would be the Peace House, a building in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
Such coins are released routinely to commemorate a president’s foreign trips. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the coin “is not something that the White House has anything to do with.”
“We don’t have any input on the design, the manufacturer, the process, in any capacity,” she said. “This is a standard procedure by the White House Communications Agency, which is made up exclusively of career military officials. And these coins are designed and done by that organization.”
Coin or no coin, canceling the summit would be a blow to negotiations that Mr. Trump has hoped would produce his biggest foreign policy achievement. As the preparations progressed and North Korea released three American captives this month, there was even talk in some quarters of awarding the president the Nobel Peace Prize if the summit is fruitful.
Mrs. Sanders said the president’s meeting with Mr. Moon was productive and that the White House is still preparing for the summit as scheduled.
“We’re going to continue in preparations, and we’ll see what happens,” she said.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea reached a crisis point last year as Pyongyang tested missiles believed capable of reaching the U.S. mainland and tested what was believed to be a hydrogen bomb. Mr. Trump threatened to bring “fire and fury” against North Korea if it struck the U.S. and ridiculed Mr. Kim as “little rocket man.”