On the eve of the first anniversary of his precedent-shattering summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, President Trump heaped fresh praise on the North Korean leader Tuesday even as critics, including some conservatives, complained that Pyongyang had made no real progress on denuclearization over the past year despite Mr. Trump’s intense personal diplomacy.
Fiercely protective of his administration’s signature foreign policy initiative, Mr. Trump rejected suggestions of applying more pressure on Pyongyang. He revealed to reporters that he had received a “beautiful” letter from Mr. Kim a day earlier and suggested a renewal of the stalled talks with the North Korean leader is in the works.
“I can’t show you the letter, obviously, but it was a very personal, very warm, very nice letter,” Mr. Trump said.
Asked about a Wall Street Journal report that Mr. Kim’s assassinated half brother may have been providing information to U.S. intelligence agencies, Mr. Trump said he never would have authorized recruiting family members of Mr. Kim as assets to gather intelligence on the opaque North Korean regime. The newspaper reported that Kim Jong-nam was traveling to Malaysia to meet his CIA contact before he was assassinated at an airport there in 2017.
“I would never let that happen under my auspices,” the president said.
The anniversary of the one-day summit in Singapore — a second summit in Hanoi in February broke up abruptly with the two sides far apart on the future of the North’s nuclear and missile programs — has sparked a mini-industry of stocktaking. Mr. Trump noted again Tuesday that regional tensions are down sharply in East Asia and Mr. Kim has refrained from major weapons tests since the Singapore summit.
But skeptics say the North Korea crisis is following a long-familiar pattern in which Pyongyang seeks to ease its economic crisis while stringing along the U.S. and its allies with denuclearization promises that never materialize.
“While there was much hope that Singapore would deliver results, it has, thus far, failed to do so,” Heritage Foundation Asia scholar Olivia Enos said Tuesday. “North Korea is no closer to denuclearizing than it was prior to Singapore, and human rights conditions in North Korea continue to deteriorate.”
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief, added that “denuclearization negotiations with North Korea are at an impasse” and that “Kim Jong-un has been no more willing to abandon his country’s arsenal than his father and grandfather were.”
Mr. Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, said the Trump administration has fallen short with its “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea.
“The Trump administration initially sanctioned more North Korean entities in its first 18 months in office than the Obama administration did in eight years,” Mr. Klingner said. “But like his predecessors, Trump has not fully enforced U.S. laws, including those protecting the U.S. financial system. For all its tough talk, the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy was never maximum.”
The administration rallied the U.N. Security Council to level the most extensive slate of economic sanctions to date against North Korea in 2017. Washington also has its own unilateral sanctions in place against certain North Korean economic sectors.
U.S. officials last month announced the seizure of a North Korean ship accused of smuggling coal and heavy machinery in defiance of sanctions. Although officials noted in court documents that Indonesian authorities seized the ship in April 2018, many saw the move as a signal from the Trump administration that it could enforce sanctions more aggressively.
The ship seizure was revealed after North Korea carried out a wave of short-range missile tests. Pyongyang refrained from such tests during a period of diplomacy with Washington.
After the failed summit in February, Mr. Trump said he had to walk away because the North Koreans demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of their nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang later challenged that characterization.
Since Hanoi, the North Korean regime has resumed its heated rhetoric against U.S. policy and against many of Mr. Trump’s top aides while carefully refraining from attacks on Mr. Trump himself. In mid-April, Mr. Kim set a Dec. 31 deadline for the Trump administration to make a “bold decision” to change its negotiating stance if it wants a deal.
“We don’t like — and we are not interested in — the United States’ way of dialogue … in which it tries to unilaterally push through its demands,” Mr. Kim said in the speech. “We don’t welcome — and we have no intention of repeating — the kind of summit meeting like the one held in Hanoi.”
North Korean state media appeared to reiterate the statement last week with a message from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang that said “there is a limit to our patience.”
However, the message carried by the regime-controlled Korean Central News Agency also projected positive language about the Singapore summit. It referred to the meeting as a “momentous occasion of great significance in promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korean press outlets repeatedly argue that it is the U.S. that has failed to live up to the commitments in the original Singapore declaration, which hinted at security guarantees for the North and a possible formal end to the Korean War of the early 1950s.
White House officials declined to comment further on the subsequent letter that Mr. Trump claimed to have received this week from Mr. Kim. The letter would mark the first direct communication between the U.S. and North Korean leaders since their summit in Hanoi broke down three months ago without a deal.
“We have a very good relationship together. Now I can confirm it because of the letter I got yesterday,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “And, I think that, you know, I think that something will happen that’s going to be very positive.”
The president went on to tout signs of progress with North Korea despite its short-range missile tests.
“No nuclear testing, no major missile testing. Nothing like when I first got here,” Mr. Trump said as he left the White House en route to Iowa. “When I first got here, it was a bad mess.”
The president also touted North Korea’s return over the past year of American hostages and the remains of U.S. soldiers who perished in the Korean War. But the North has provided no remains after a set of 55 was turned over to the U.S. military a month after the Singapore summit. The Pentagon announced last month that it had halted talks on joint searches inside North Korea because of the diplomatic stalemate.
Mr. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are suggesting that a third Trump-Kim summit may be in the works, with the lure of economic aid too great for Mr. Kim to resist indefinitely.
“I think that North Korea has tremendous potential,” Mr. Trump said. “The one that feels that more than anyone is Kim Jong-un. He gets it.”
Mr. Trump is set to meet with Mr. Moon in Seoul this month to discuss the next steps on North Korea after a visit to Osaka, Japan, for the Group of 20 summit.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, brushed aside North Korea’s recent demands in an interview with The Washington Times, saying the Trump administration remains open to talks but that denuclearization is a non-negotiable end goal.
“I hope we get another opportunity to sit down with them and have a serious conversation,” Mr. Pompeo said in the interview last week.
The secretary of state stressed that it was Mr. Kim who agreed to give up his nuclear arsenal at the Singapore summit a year ago.
“They need to do what Chairman Kim said that they would do,” he said. “That’s been our posture since the beginning. We’re happy to talk about the best way to achieve that. We’re happy to talk about what the right tools and mechanisms are so we can facilitate that.”
But some national security analysts say the two sides have wide differences on what “complete denuclearization” would entail. Some argue that the North Koreans, as the price for giving up their nuclear arsenal, want the removal of the U.S. defensive nuclear umbrella from all of East Asia as well.
David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a North Korea analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said “the U.S. has been clear that it is ready to talk.”
“Kim is the one who has not allowed substantive working-level talks since the Singapore summit,” Mr. Maxwell said recently.
There should be no third summit with North Korea “unless working-level negotiations produce some kind of substantive agreement,” he added.
“We should not expect any substantive positive action from the North because Kim is still trying to recover from his failure at Hanoi,” Mr. Maxwell said, arguing that the best way forward for the Trump administration is to “sustain maximum pressure” against Pyongyang.
• Maggie Garred contributed to this report.