Donald Trump, the US president, will arrive in Seoul on Saturday to attempt to shift up a gear on North Korean nuclear disarmament talks that are firmly stuck in neutral.
The two-day visit an opportunity for Mr Trump to strategise with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, after his summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to make progress over the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear and weapons programme.
Mr Trump is also said to be considering a visit to the heavily fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, which was once dubbed “the scariest place on earth” by former US President Bill Clinton.
The plan prompted speculation this week that the US president may try to arrange an impromptu meeting with Kim Jong-un to revive the moribund negotiations. However, South Korean and US officials have sought to downplay any expectations of a surprise rendezvous.
Mr Trump also dismissed the idea while speaking to reporters on his flight to this week’s G20 meeting in Japan, but added cryptically that: “I may be speaking to him in a different form.”
Vipin Narang, a security studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggested the two leaders could communicate via phone call or letter.
“I wouldn’t expect a Trump-Kim meeting: it’s too risky to do so with such little working level prep, since neither can afford a second failed meeting at home,” he said.
Mr Trump and Kim have exchanged 12 letters since the start of last year and have written to each other the collapse of the Hanoi Summit.
Mr Trump said earlier this month that he had received a “beautiful letter” from Kim.
Meanwhile, the North Korean leader was so pleased with Mr Trump’s latest missive last week that he splashed a picture of himself reading the “letter of excellent content” on the front page of the state-run Rodong Sinmun, and praised the US president’s “extraordinary courage.”
However, the warm exchange is unlikely to break the deadlock over North Korea’s reluctance to give up its nuclear weapons, which will be the main focus of Mr Moon’s summit with the US leader on Sunday.
Mr Moon claimed on Wednesday that North Korean and American officials were already holding “behind-the-scenes talks” to arrange a third summit, while Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said he hoped the letter to Kim would lay a “good foundation” for immediate dialogue.
But Pyongyang threw cold water on those hopes on Thursday. “The US repeatedly talks about the resumption of dialogue like a parrot without considering any realistic proposal that would fully conform with the interests of both sides,” it said in a foreign ministry statement.
North Korea also rebuked the South, warning Seoul to stop trying to play the role of mediator.
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up for movement toward a third summit, though I’m sure they will discuss it and how to jumpstart working level talks,” said Mr Narang, of this weekend’s summit.
Mr Moon would likely try to push Mr Trump to accept a “good enough deal” or “a deal that is comprehensive in scope but phased and simultaneously step-by-step in implementation,” he explained.
But South and North Korea still believed that “peace and trust” were necessary prior conditions to denuclearisation, while the Trump administration insisted unilateral disarmament must come first, he said. “There is no evidence that gap has narrowed since Hanoi.”