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N Korea at crossroads

Trump seeks Kim summit soon as US elections approach

Pyongyang aims for a declaration of the end of the Korean War

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who conferred in Singapore June 12, both have their reasons for wanting a second meeting soon.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are considering an early date for a second summit, as Trump's Republican Party faces tough prospects in November's midterm elections and Kim seeks a security guarantee for his isolated regime via a declaration of the end of the Korean War.

"Both Koreas and the U.S. are looking to October, ahead of the U.S. midterm elections," as a time for the meeting, said a source affiliated with South Korean diplomacy.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters at a Monday briefing that "we are open to and are already in the process of coordinating" a second summit with Kim, which the leader of the impoverished and heavily sanctioned state requested in a direct letter to Trump.

The same day, National Security Adviser John Bolton -- a noted North Korea hawk -- said the two leaders could meet again this year, though he criticized the North for insufficient progress on denuclearization.

Those comments appeared to show a major turnaround from August, when Trump called off a fourth visit to the North by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, writing on Twitter that "I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Asked the reason for the shift, Sanders cited Pyongyang's generally restrained tone in a large military parade Sunday, in which it made the unusual move of keeping its ballistic missiles out of view.

But that appeared to be an after-the-fact justification for a decision made as Trump finds himself in increasing trouble approaching November's elections. Earlier this month, an anonymous person claiming to be a senior administration official painted an alarming picture of Trump's governance and described internal efforts to undermine him in an op-ed in the New York Times. That came days after renowned political journalist Bob Woodward described an administration in chaos in excerpts from a book that comes out Tuesday.

Kim's request for another meeting may look like a lifeline for Trump, giving him the chance to push the North directly to move on disarming and break the current stalemate. Though some in Washington remain skeptical of the North's promises, the White House also cannot afford to let Trump's June 12 meeting with Kim in Singapore be seen as a failure.

Pyongyang is also hoping for a breakthrough. The leadership has been seeking another Trump-Kim meeting since Pompeo's last visit in July. Talks with the secretary of state stalled after he pushed hard for movement toward denuclearization, counter to North Korea's expectations. The North took Pompeo's harsher-than-expected stance to be the result of divisions in Washington and sought to go straight to the top.

Kim told South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong last week that he still had faith in Trump and even said he wanted to achieve denuclearization during Trump's current term ending in January 2021, Chung said. But the leader reportedly did not offer details on the process or methods of disarming. Kim also maintained his basic stance that disarmament would happen in phases, and expressed hope that past U.S.-North Korea hostilities would be buried and relations improved.

North Korea remains firm on the point that officially ending decades of hostile relations with the U.S. should be a priority. It aims to use Seoul as an intermediary in getting Washington back to the table, as it did for the June summit. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to visit Pyongyang next Tuesday to Thursday, and the following week will fly to New York to speak with Trump.

Trump's pursuit of direct talks, however, risks letting Kim set the pace of negotiations.

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