NEW YORK/ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday played down the chances of a quick breakthrough in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms, as a delegation from Pyongyang headed to meet him with a letter from North Korea’s leader that suggested a planned summit may be back on.
Trump, in a brief interview with Reuters aboard Air Force One on the way to Texas, said he was still hoping to hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore.
“I’d like to see it done in one meeting,” he said. “But often times that’s not the way deals work. There’s a very good chance that it won’t be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings. But it’ll get done at some point.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a North Korean delegation, headed by high-ranking official Kim Yong Chol, would make a rare visit to the White House on Friday and give Trump a letter from leader Kim.
The letter appeared to be in response to a comment from Trump last Thursday when he canceled the summit, accusing Pyongyang of hostility, but urged the North Korean leader to “call me or write” if he had a change of heart.
North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions have been a source of tension for decades, has made advances in missile technology in recent years but Trump has sworn not to allow it to develop nuclear missiles that could hit the United States.
He wants North Korea to “denuclearize,” meaning to get rid of its nuclear arms, in return for relief from economic sanctions but the leadership in Pyongyang is believed to regard nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival and has rejected unilaterally disarming.
The North Korean visit to the White House would be the first there by a high-level Pyongyang official since 2000 when senior figure Jo Myong Rok met President Bill Clinton.
Trump and the autocratic Kim traded insults and threats of war last year but in March the bellicose rhetoric gave way to a proposal for a historic summit.
In recent days there has been a flurry of diplomatic efforts to get the encounter between the two leaders back on track.
“It does no good if we are in a place where we don’t think there is real opportunity to place them together,” Pompeo said on Thursday after two days of talks with Kim Yong Chol in New York. “We have made real progress toward that in the last 72 hours.”
Kim Yong Chol is a close aide of leader Kim Jong Un and is vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee.
The United States and South Korea blacklisted him for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively. He has been granted special permission for official travel to the United States.
During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, Kim was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010. He was linked by U.S intelligence to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.
North Korea denied any involvement in both attacks.
The United States, in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, could potentially loosen economic sanctions, leading to possible food and other aid to North Korea and improved ties with South Korea.
Pompeo warned the path to better relations will not be easy.
“This is going to be a process that will take days and weeks to work our way through,” he said at a news conference. When asked if it will be clear on Friday if the summit will go ahead he said: “Don’t know. Don’t know yet.”
North and South Korea have technically been at war for decades, even though the Korean War’s military combat ended in 1953, because a peace agreement was never signed.
China, North Korea’s main trading partner and a key ally, said it supported and encouraged the “emerging good faith” between the United States and North Korea.
“At the same time as working to achieve the goal of denuclearization, we should also build long-term and effective initiatives to keep peace on the Korean peninsula,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in Beijing.
Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos and Daniel Bases in New York and Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan and David Brunnstrom in Washington Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Trott