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White House Says North Korea Meeting Will Happen Only With 'Concrete' Action

A man at the Seoul, South Korea, train station last August watches a news program featuring President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Ahn Young-joon
A man at the Seoul, South Korea, train station last August watches a news program featuring President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Updated Saturday, March 10 at 2:32 p.m. ET

The White House appeared Friday to put conditions on a much anticipated meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying it would only happen once the rogue nation takes "concrete and verifiable action" to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization.

"We've accepted the invitation to talk based on them following through on concrete actions on the promises they've made," Sanders said Friday.

Later in the day, Trump himself tweeted out that there was, indeed, a deal "very much in the making."

The surprise announcement of a possible Trump-Kim summit came after the president met Thursday with South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong. Chung briefed the president about his recent meeting with Kim in Pyongyang.

But less than 24 hours later, the White House appeared to hedge somewhat and call into question whether the meeting would ever come to fruition. Sanders appeared to add the condition that North Korea take tangible steps toward denuclearization before any meeting takes place. Last year, North Korea successfully tested its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

When pressed by reporters if that meant that the meeting might not happen after all, Sanders underscored that the onus was on North Korea. She emphasized that "nothing" had changed from the U.S. viewpoint and that Trump's "maximum pressure campaign" against North Korea would continue.

Sanders didn't outline the actions that would fulfill that denuclearization prerequisite, saying only that the national security and intelligence community would make those determinations. A time and place for the Trump-Kim meeting have not yet been set, although South Korea says it is expected by May.

As NPR's Elise Hu reported Thursday, "Any meeting between these two leaders would be historic. The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea; the countries are adversaries dating to the Korean War and repeatedly traded heated insults last year, including Trump's remarks at the United Nations, in which he vowed to 'totally destroy' North Korea if the U.S. was threatened."

Trump has also ribbed Kim on social media frequently, only heightening global tensions. Trump often referred to Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and bragged on Twitter that his nuclear button in the U.S. is bigger than the North Korean leader's.

Sanders also denied that the Thursday announcement had been haphazard in any way or that key foreign policy officials had been left out. Hours before the announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had declared that the U.S. is "a long ways from negotiations" with North Korea. But Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa, later emphasized a distinction between formal negotiations and what he called "talks."

Sanders also pushed back on the reports that national security adviser H.R. McMaster could be on his way out and said she had no reason to believe that McMaster wouldn't be a part of the upcoming North Korea talks. Sanders called the three-star Army general a "valued member" of the Trump administration.

"Look, the president has an incredible team that is surrounding him," Sanders said Friday. "But at the end of the day, the ultimate person to lead that negotiation or that conversation and be at the table will be the president."

And Saturday Trump used Twitter to provide an update about North Korea. The president said he had spoken with his counterparts in China and Japan and he expressed optimism that North Korea will not conduct a missile test between now and the time of his meetings with Kim Jong Un.

"President XI told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going the ominous alternative," Trump wrote about China's leader.

Trump also said Saturday on Twitter that Japan's prime minister "is very enthusiastic about talks with North Korea."

And in another tweet Saturday the president said North Korea "has promised not" to conduct a missile test "through our meetings," adding "I believe they will honor that commitment!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.