Just days after reiterating that military options for dealing with North Korea are under consideration, President Donald Trump said he is willing to meet its leader Kim Jong Un.
The potential dramatic shift in the U.S. posture toward the Asian adversary comes as Pyongyang continues to conduct ballistic missile launches and is believed poised to conduct its sixth underground nuclear test.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” the president said of Kim in an interview Monday with Bloomberg News.
“Most political people would never say that, but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.” The remark was made during a wide-ranging 30-minute interview in the Oval Office that occurred as a U.S. Navy carrier strike force is off the Korean peninsula.
In a television interview aired Sunday on the CBS News program Face the Nation, the president also expressed admiration for Kim being able to secure power over the totalitarian country he inherited from his father in his late 20s, calling him a “pretty smart cookie.”
WATCH: Spicer on Trump’s willing to meet with North Korea leader
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer faced questions Monday about Trump’s comments.
“The president understands the threat that North Korea poses and he will do whatever is necessary, under the right circumstances, to protect our country from the threat that they pose,” said Spicer, who noted that as far as any meeting between Trump and Kim, “clearly conditions are not there right now.”
Albright last to meet North Korean leader
The last high-ranking American official to meet a North Korean leader was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That encounter in Pyongyang in 2000 was with the current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il.
The United States and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations.
Trump has stated repeatedly that all options are on the table regarding Pyongyang, and that conceivably would include diplomacy.
His comments Monday could now lead to exploratory discussions for direct leader talks between Washington and Pyongyang, former U.S. special envoy for negotiations, Joseph DeTrani, told VOA.
“We wouldn’t want to see nuclear tests and missile launches during that period,” added DeTrani, who called Trump’s comments “encouraging.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking at the United Nations last week, said negotiations with Pyongyang are only possible if it makes credible steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Retired general finds a positive
A former commander of U.S. Forces Korea says that goal is no longer practical.
“We’re not going to get the North Koreans ever to give up their nuclear weapons,” General (Ret.) John Wickham, Jr. told VOA. “But that doesn’t mean we cannot do things to constrain them like we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Iran now.”
A Trump-Kim meeting, however, could lead to resumption of the long-stalled 6-nation dialogue to renewed inspections of North Korea’s weapons facilities, controls on exports of its nuclear and missile technology, and possibly the country joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty, said Wickham, who also served as U.S. Army chief of staff.
Several members of the U.S. Senate, who spoke with VOA, are more circumspect.
Giving a blessing to the leaders of countries such as North Korea or the Philippines, with their “dictatorial anti-human rights attitudes,” is “bad policy and sends a wrong message to millions of people around the world who look to America for moral leadership,” said Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
McCain ‘very skeptical’
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John McCain, said he is “very skeptical” about whether anything positive could emerge from a Trump-Kim meeting.
“I don’t know. I doubt it,” McCain said. “I think you’d have to have some parameters before such a meeting took place.”
Independent Senator Angus King said, “I’d much rather have some direct communications, whether it’s at the secretary of state level or even at the presidential level, rather than firing verbal fusillades.”
Pompeo holds meeting in South Korea
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo has been in Seoul talking about the North Korean threat with South Korean intelligence officials and high-level presidential aides. He also met with U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. embassy officials.
The discussions come as Pyongyang declared that in the face of new U.S. pressure for U.N. sanctions against North Korea, it would “speed up” its nuclear deterrence “at the maximum pace.”
Mark Bowman and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report