President Donald Trump told reporters on Tuesday that five locations are being considered for his widely anticipated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Speaking amid talks with his skeptical Japanese counterpart, Trump said that “very high levels” of discussion between Washington and Pyongyang are already underway.
“We have had direct talks,” Trump said alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I really believe there’s a lot of goodwill. We’ll see what happens, as I always say. Because ultimately it’s the end result that counts.”
It was a dramatic opening to a two-day summit with Abe where North Korea will dominate the agenda. Both men hope the summit can smooth over differences on that issue as well as trade.
A moment of confusion on the Mar-a-Lago lawn encapsulated the fervor surrounding the talks. At one point, Trump appeared to tell reporters that he himself had spoken to Kim.
But at his dinner table a moment later, the President clarified that he’d leave it “a little bit short of that.”
“The President said the administration has had talks at the highest levels and added that they were not with him directly,” Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
CNN has previously reported that secret talks between North Korean and US officials are underway through intelligence channels. But Trump’s confirmation of those discussions is the clearest indication yet that preparations are proceeding for what would be a historic and audacious diplomatic opening.
Asked whether any of the possible locations for the meeting with Kim are in the United States, Trump shook his head no – and offered no additional details.
However, US officials have floated several possible venues over the past month, including: the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar; the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea; a neutral European capital like Stockholm or Geneva; a location at sea like Jeju island or a ship; Southeast Asia, including possibly Singapore or Malaysia; the South Korean capital Seoul; or the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a seemingly unlikely choice that no US official has yet ruled out.
During his remarks, Trump also said that he’d given his “blessing” to North and South Korea ahead of anticipated talks over concluding the Korean War, which technically never ended even after hostilities ceased more than six decades ago.
“People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended. It’s going on right now,” Trump said.
Trump’s comments on North Korea occurred inside his ornate, gold-leafed ballroom at Mar-a-Lago. It’s the second time Trump has welcomed Abe to his Florida club, and the two men plan to “sneak out,” as Trump put it to reporters, for a round of golf Wednesday.
In February last year, the two men conferred on the dining patio after Kim had ordered the test launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Fourteen months later, Trump is preparing for talks with Kim, leaving Abe sidelined.
Japanese officials have signaled Abe will raise his concerns about direct talks during his two-day summit with Trump. White House aides say Trump will take those concerns into serious consideration as he prepares for the historic talks with Kim.
But there is little to suggest Trump will be deterred from holding the meeting with North Korea’s leader, which is expected by late May or early June.
“I’d like to commend Donald’s courage,” Abe said on Tuesday, referring to Trump’s decision to meet with Kim.
Trump and Abe’s Tuesday afternoon meeting was set to be focused intently on North Korea before a formal welcoming ceremony on the Mar-a-Lago lawn. Later, the two men and their wives will dine together. The talks will continue Wednesday, expanding to include trade issues, before a news conference and another joint dinner.
It amounts to hours of face time for Abe, who is the foreign leader Trump has met and spoken with the most since entering office last year. The Japanese leader has focused on fostering the relationship, including orchestrating multiple rounds of golf and ordering up white ball caps emblazoned with the words: “Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater.”
But even those efforts haven’t prevented new levels of tension from arising. Like much of the world, Japan was caught off-guard by Trump’s on-the-spot acceptance of an invitation for talks with Kim. As other Asian leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in meet with Kim, Abe has been left out.
He’s expected to press the importance of ensuring Japanese safety in his talks with Trump, particularly stressing the need to end test launches of intermediate range missiles, some of which have landed in the waters off Japan.
“They’ve conferred extremely closely,” said Matt Pottinger, the top Asia official on Trump’s National Security Council, during a Tuesday briefing. “Prime Minister Abe and the President are going to want to exchange views in advance of a summit with the North Korean leader so that we make sure Japanese and American interests are both fully accounted for.”
Aside from differences over North Korea, Trump has taken harsh new measures on trade that are expected to come up during the two leaders’ meetings. Japan was the only major US ally not to be exempted from Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. US officials said they expected Abe to lobby for an exemption during talks on Wednesday.
CNN’s Sophie Tatum and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.