By Steve Holland and Christine Kim
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – The White House said on Monday it fully expects an unprecedented meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to take place, even though Pyongyang has yet to comment publicly on the possibility.
A South Korean delegation that visited North Korea last week said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed a wish to meet Trump and South Korea’s president to discuss denuclearisation. North Korean media has reported the South Korean visit, but no details of the talks.
Asked if the North Korean silence meant there was a chance the meeting between Trump and Kim would not take place, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said:
“We fully expect that it will. The offer was made and we’ve accepted. North Korea made several promises and we hope that they would stick to those promises and if so the meeting will go on as planned.
“We are continuing to prepare on a number of levels,” she told a regular briefing.Earlier, South Korea said North Korea’s silence on summits with both the United States and South Korea was probably due to caution in preparing for the meetings, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington expected to hear directly from Pyongyang.
“We have not seen nor received an official response from the North Korean regime regarding the North Korea-U.S. summit,” said Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for South Korea’s Unification ministry.
“I feel they’re approaching this matter with caution and they need time to organize their stance.”
Tillerson said several steps would be necessary to agree the location and scope of the talks.
“It’s very early stages. We’ve not heard anything directly back from North Korea but we expect to hear something directly from them,” he said during a visit to Nigeria.
Tillerson, who has cut short his first trip to Africa as secretary of state to return to Washington on Tuesday, a day ahead of schedule, did not elaborate.
In an unexpected move last week, Trump agreed to hold a first-ever meeting with Kim, which South Korea said would take place by the end of May after a North-South summit in April.
News of possible talks has been a dramatic turnaround from fears of war over North Korea’s development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Trump made the announcement after the head of a South Korean delegation that met Kim last week said the North Korean leader had committed to denuclearisation and pledged to refrain from nuclear and missile tests.
Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in will meet at the truce village of Panmunjom straddling the Korean border, but a venue for the North Korea-U.S. summit has yet to be decided.
CHINA URGES PATIENCE
The South Korean officials who met Kim traveled to Washington last week to relay his message and visited China on Monday to brief President Xi Jinping, who urged patience.
South Korea’s National Security Office chief, Chung Eui-yong, who led the delegation to Pyongyang, will head to Russia on Tuesday, while spy agency chief Suh Hoon met Japan’s foreign minister in Tokyo, where he is to speak with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday.
In Beijing on Monday, Xi told Chung there was an important opportunity for talks.
“At the same time, all sides must exercise patience and be attentive, and show political wisdom, to appropriately face and dispel any problems and interference to resuming the talks process,” state media cited Xi as saying.
Xi said China looked forward to smooth talks between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea and substantive progress in the denuclearisation process and normalization of ties.
Tensions eased as the Koreas held talks against the backdrop of the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month but Japan has expressed scepticism and warned that “talks for the sake of talks” would be unacceptable.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said after talks with Suh Hoon that Tokyo and Seoul agreed that maximum pressure must be maintained on North Korea until it takes concrete action to address concerns about its weapons programs.
Kono declined to say what that action should be, but South Korea’s presidential Blue House quoted him as saying that the breakthrough on talks with North Korea was a near “miracle”.
In Geneva, the U.N. investigator on North Korea told the world body’s Human Rights Council that any progress in the nuclear and security dialogue must be accompanied by talks on human rights violations, including political prison camps.
“Let me urge the DPRK to consolidate this rapprochement with a parallel opening to human rights review,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea’s state media has lauded the thaw in relations with South Korea. It has continued to warn the United States and Japan against war-mongering, but its rhetoric has been tame compared with threats exchanged at the height of tensions last year.
(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and Lusha Zhang in BEIJING, Paul Cersten in ABUJA and David Brunnstrom and Eric Beech in WASHINGTON; Editing by Robert Birsel and James Dalgleish)