On the eve of his high-stakes summit with North Korea, President Donald Trump expressed optimism Monday as officials from both sides worked until the last minute to try to hammer out a nuclear agreement.
The White House declared talks “have moved more quickly than expected” and said Trump planned to depart later Tuesday after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The summit — the first-ever between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president — will be a major breakthrough in itself after decades of hostility between the two nations.
Expectations are low that it will result in a major agreement on the North’s nuclear weapons program, but the turn toward diplomacy has tamped down tensions that had raised fear of a nuclear war last year.
“We’ve got a very interesting meeting in particular tomorrow,” Trump said during a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “I think things could work out very nicely.”
The summit is due to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the luxury Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, a tropical resort area known for its golf courses and an amusement park.
Trump and Kim planned to shake hands, then hold a one-on-one meeting with only translators present before being joined by their respective advisers, the White House said.
The U.S. advisers will include Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and other senior officials.
“At the conclusion of the summit, President Trump will participate in a media availability before departing tomorrow at approximately 8 p.m. for the United States,” the White House said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out some of the U.S. cards, saying the administration was sticking to its demand for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the North.
He added that the administration is prepared to provide North Korea with unprecedented security assurances and will ensure that denuclearization “is not something that ends badly for them.”
That was an apparent nod to North Korea’s sensitivities about the fate of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his fledging nuclear program in exchange for economic incentives from the United States only to be ousted and killed by a mob years later.
Like Gadhafi, Kim Jong Un has been accused by human rights groups of brutally repressing his people to maintain his hold on power.
Kim, believed to be 34, is the third leader in a family dynasty that has ruled the communist state since it was founded in 1948.
The president has placed high priority on the possibly legacy-defining meeting and has welcomed suggestions that he may win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Trump said Saturday that he’ll size up Kim “within the first minute” of the summit, adding that he believes the North Korean leader will “surprise on the upside.”
The president also has said it will be the start of the process, suggesting that the meeting will set the stage for more detailed negotiations in coming months.
That was a reversal from the administration’s previous all-or-nothing stance.
The key will be whether the two leaders can narrow their differences over the definition of denuclearization.
The Trump administration seeks the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang wants a step-by-step approach that would include rewards such as relaxed economic sanctions and security assurances along the way. Pompeo acknowledged that the North has a track record for making lofty promises in past negotiations only to renege, sometimes years later.
The former CIA chief said U.S. sanctions will remain in place until Washington verifies the North’s denuclearization efforts.
The United States will move to tighten the punishing measures if diplomacy fails, he added.
North Korea has nominally committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, but it has traditionally used that term to also demand that the United States remove its assets, including troops, from the region.
Pompeo declined to comment on a question about the some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers based in South Korea.
Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have insisted the U.S. military presence and longstanding alliance with the South is not on the table in talks with the North.
U.S. and North Korean officials held last-minute negotiations at a luxury hotel on Monday, trying to reach agreement on specific goals and lay the groundwork for potential resolutions of key issues.
Experts say it’s highly doubtful that the North would abandon its nuclear weapons but it may agree to goodwill gestures.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed the summit but also cautioned that it will be the start of a “long process” that could take “one year, two years or even longer.”
Moon, who took office last year promising to seek engagement with the North, has brokered the talks after holding his own summit with Kim in the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula.
Trump also briefed Moon about preparations for the summit, according to the presidential Blue House. Moon told his U.S. counterpart that South Koreans will be praying for a “miraculous result,” it said.
The stakes are high for South Korea, which is hoping for a possible agreement on a declaration to formally end the 1950-53 war.
The fighting between the U.S.-backed South and the communist-backed North ended with a truce instead of a peace treaty, leaving the countries technically at war.
The armistice was signed by the U.S.-led United Nations command, North Korea and China, who would all presumably have to be party to a peace treaty today.
Then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee wanted to continue fighting and refused to sign the treaty.
In a rare move, North Korea also broadcast news of what it called the “historic summit” with photos of leader Kim Jong Un’s arrival Sunday in Singapore splashed on the front page of the main official newspaper.
It also disclosed that the third-generation leader traveled to the wealthy island state on a Chinese plane.
The news also was reported on Korean Central Television, signaling its importance to the regime.
Trump and Kim both arrived in Singapore on Sunday and are staying less than half a mile apart at luxury hotels that are under tight security.
“The entire world is watching the historic summit between [North Korea] and the United States of America,” Kim told Lee when they met on Sunday.
Stars and Stripes correspondent Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.