Trump Says He’s Open to Third North Korea Meeting, and ‘Smaller Deals’ Are Possible

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Thursday that he would be open to a third summit meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, suggesting he is keen to revive a high-stakes engagement that was abruptly suspended six weeks ago after the two leaders failed to strike a nuclear disarmament deal in Vietnam.

Speaking before an Oval Office meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Mr. Trump also opened the door to a series of smaller deals with North Korea — a piecemeal approach that could allow the two leaders to resurrect negotiations that had foundered on their inability to seal a blockbuster agreement.

“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen,” Mr. Trump told reporters, alongside a smiling Mr. Moon. “Things could happen. You can work out step-by-step pieces, but at this moment we are talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Trump drew the line at easing sanctions on North Korea for anything short of a commitment to give up its entire nuclear arsenal. But he also said he had decided not to impose additional sanctions on Pyongyang — a testament, he said, to his warm relationship with Mr. Kim.

The president’s conciliatory tone was a modest victory for Mr. Moon, who has made rapprochement with North Korea the centerpiece of his administration and who is eager to entice Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim back to the table. He heaped praise on the president for not closing the door to future meetings.

“In this sense, I believe the Hanoi summit was not a source of disappointment,” Mr. Moon said. “But it is actually part of a bigger process that will lead us to a bigger agreement.”

That was putting the best possible face on the situation.

The breakdown in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, was an acute embarrassment to Mr. Kim, and there are no signs he is ready to put it behind him. This week, he threatened to deliver a “telling blow” to the countries that imposed the sanctions. He called for the North to become more self-reliant so it could withstand the economic pressure.

“North Korea is in a bit of sulking mode right now,” said Joseph Y. Yun, a former State Department official who has negotiated with Pyongyang. “They feel they’ve lost the initiative and are wondering how to get it back. It’s Moon’s job to figure out how to get the two sides back together.”

That will be a tricky task. Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim discovered in Hanoi that they have starkly different views of how the two sides should negotiate. Mr. Trump pushed for a grand bargain under which North Korea would give up all of its nuclear weapons, material and facilities for the lifting of American-led sanctions.

Mr. Kim countered with a more incremental offer — that North Korea would dismantle its aging Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for lifting the most onerous sanctions against the North. Mr. Trump’s aides, notably the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, warned him against taking such a deal.

The timing of the meeting, analysts said, may have added to Mr. Trump’s caution. As he and Mr. Kim were facing off in Hanoi, lawmakers in Washington began their televised interrogation of Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen — a split-screen drama that could have fed perceptions, had the president accepted a deal, that he was merely looking for a way to change the subject.

Six weeks later, after the disclosure that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, did not find evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, the legal cloud over Mr. Trump has lifted a bit. That could make the president more willing to take a risk at the bargaining table.

Analysts said they could envision a way to square Mr. Kim’s incremental approach with Mr. Trump’s big-bang ambitions. North Korea, they said, could offer to dismantle Yongbyon, along with a freeze on its program, in return for limited sanctions relief. The two sides could then agree on a road map that would lead to North Korea’s complete denuclearization and the full lifting of sanctions.

“If they could get an agreement on the end goal, that would be the big deal in principle,” said Victor D. Cha, a professor at Georgetown University who negotiated with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration. “That’s not a bad place for the U.S. to be, in terms of leverage.”

Behind closed doors, analysts said Mr. Moon probably pushed Mr. Trump to show more flexibility on sanctions. But publicly, he took pains to stay on the same page as the president, insisting there was “no daylight” between South Korea and the United States on the goal of ridding North Korea of its arsenal.

For Mr. Moon, however, cajoling Mr. Kim back to the table could be harder than it is with Mr. Trump. The psychological impact of Mr. Kim being rebuffed in Hanoi cannot be overestimated, given that he is a 35-year-old leader who has ruthlessly put down any challenges to his rule, experts said.

“This is probably the first time anyone has ever said no to him,” Mr. Cha said. “So this was an embarrassment for him.”

Mr. Moon’s next stop is likely to be North Korea, where, Mr. Cha said, he is “going to go try to pull the North Koreans out of their shell.”

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