By Hyonhee Shin and Jeff Mason
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will visit South Korea this weekend after an exchange of letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boosted hopes for a resumption of talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump is set to arrive in South Korea for a two-day visit on Saturday and will meet President Moon Jae-in on Sunday, following a summit of G20 leaders in Japan, Moon’s spokeswoman, Ko Min-jung, said on Monday.
The announcement came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped a letter Trump sent to Kim could pave the way for a revival of talks that have been stalled since a failed second summit between Trump and Kim in February.
Trump and Moon would have “in-depth discussions on ways to work together to foster lasting peace,” Ko told a news briefing.
Trump told reporters at the White House that Kim had sent him birthday wishes. “It was just a very friendly letter both ways. We have a very good relationship,” he said.
Pompeo, who spoke of Trump’s letter to Kim before leaving Washington on Sunday for a trip to the Middle East and Asia, said Washington was ready to resume talks with North Korea immediately.
“I’m hopeful that this will provide a good foundation for us to begin … these important discussions with the North Koreans,” Pompeo told reporters.
Trump is considering a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, a South Korean official said.
A Trump administration official briefing reporters on a conference call said Trump had no plans to meet Kim during his visit to South Korea, and declined to comment when asked whether Trump would travel to the DMZ.
Trump wanted to go to the DMZ on a 2017 trip to South Korea but heavy fog prevented it. Kim and Moon held their historic first summit in the DMZ last year.
Trump and Kim held their first, groundbreaking summit in Singapore in June last year, agreeing to establish new relations and work towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But a second summit in Vietnam in February collapsed when the two sides were unable to bridge differences between U.S. demands for denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.
The director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, told Fox News on Monday that the intelligence community continued to assess that Kim Jong Un was not ready to give up his nuclear weapons.
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, said on Wednesday that Washington had no preconditions for talks but that progress would require meaningful and verifiable North Korean steps to denuclearize.
The State Department said Biegun, who led working-level talks with North Korea in the run-up to the Hanoi summit, would visit Seoul from Thursday until Sunday for meetings with South Korean officials.
Tension mounted last month when North Korea test-fired a series of short-range ballistic missiles, although Trump and South Korea both played down the tests.
One June 11, Trump said he had received a very warm, “beautiful” letter from Kim, adding he thought something positive would happen.
North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said on Sunday that Kim had received a letter from Trump, which he described as being “of excellent content”, but did not disclose any details.
KCNA said Kim “would seriously contemplate the interesting content”.
Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said Trump may have proposed a new round of working-level talks but that a major breakthrough was unlikely for now.
“North Korea has to show what the final state of denuclearization would look like and what road map it has toward that end, but it’s not desirable to reopen talks just to manage the situation after recent weapons tests,” Shin told Reuters.
Pompeo, who will also be in Seoul for Trump’s visit, did not discuss the contents of the president’s letter, but said Washington had been working to lay foundations for discussions.
“I think we’re in a better place,” he said.
Asked if working-level discussions would begin soon, Pompeo said: “I think the remarks you saw out of North Korea this morning suggest that may well be a very good possibility. We’re ready to go, we’re literally prepared to go at a moment’s notice if the North Koreans indicate that they’re prepared for those discussions.”
Joseph Yun, Biegun’s predecessor as special envoy for North Korea, told a panel discussion at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies that he expected there to be a third summit between Trump and Kim and it would probably take place “sooner rather than later.”
Victor Cha, a former White House official involved in past negotiations with North Korea, told the same event he expected Trump to go to the DMZ and noted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea last week.
“Whenever you see high-level letter and then the Chinese and North Koreans meeting, that’s kind of like the set-up for a third meeting,” he said.
“The question is, is he going to make a big statement at the DMZ … is he going to do it with President Moon. Are there going to be other surprises? This president likes surprises.”
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by David Lawder, David Brunnstrom, Lesley Wroughton, Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Joyce Lee and Do-gyun Kim in Seoul; Editing by Robert Birsel, James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)