WASHINGTON - The White House announced Friday that President Donald Trump would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February as the two sides seek to jump-start nuclear talks that have bogged down since their historic first meeting last year.
The news came after Trump met for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office with Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief who has served as Pyongyang's lead negotiator. White House aides disclosed no other logistics, but one location that has been strongly considered is Danang, Vietnam, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
"We've continued to make progress," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters after the meeting. She emphasized that the administration would "keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization."
The announcement reaffirmed Trump's commitment to a strategy in which he has placed faith in his own negotiating skills to cut through years of mistrust and dead-end talks among lower-level diplomats and forge a deal for North Korea to relinquish a nuclear weapons program that analysts said can now reliably strike the United States.
Yet nuclear experts have said there has been no demonstrable progress since the first summit in Singapore last June, and Trump's claims that North Korea is a diminished threat have been contradicted by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.
"While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant," the Pentagon's Missile Defense Review, made public this week, concluded.
In recent months, the talks have stalled as North Korea refused demands from U.S. negotiators to provide a detailed inventory of its nuclear and missile programs. Kim Jong Un has made clear he objects because doing so would be tantamount to providing a list of U.S. targets.
Instead, Pyongyang has insisted that the United States lift economic sanctions on North Korea and offer a security guarantee to the isolated regime before it makes any further concessions.
With little progress on the technical end of the negotiations among diplomats, the fate of the talks could rely on Trump changing the current trajectory in direct interactions with senior North Korean officials.
A second summit "is not necessarily great news," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned on Twitter. He said Trump must insist on a "detailed roadmap" and added that the outcome "depends on how well a summit is prepared and handled and what @realDonaldTrump offers and demands in return. Recent history hardly reassuring."
For Trump, a second summit could help him make the case that his top foreign policy initiative is paying off and divert attention from his escalating domestic political troubles.
The president is embroiled in an increasingly nasty public fight with congressional Democrats as a partial government shutdown over funding for his proposed border wall reached the four-week mark Friday. And the White House has been rocked by a series of new revelations in the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Friday marked the second time Trump has welcomed Kim Yong Chol, who was reported to be delivering a letter from Pyongyang. He also visited Trump in the Oval Office last June to seal plans for the leaders' summit later that month in Singapore - the first time a sitting U.S. president has met a North Korean ruler.
Unlike the first visit, however, during which a smiling Trump was photographed accepting an oversized envelope from Kim, reporters were not permitted to view any portion of their meeting in the Oval.
Before arriving at the White House, Kim met for less than an hour with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a hotel in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood. The two parties met for lunch there after Kim returned from the White House.
Trump allies praised the president's leadership and expressed cautious optimism that the high-level engagement will pay dividends.
"President Trump deserves great credit for getting us to this point," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. "We have a long way to go, and I'm hopeful that the engagement started by President Trump can finally end the North Korean problem in a win-win fashion."
Trump has been upbeat about a second round of face-to-face negotiations with Kim, touting personal letters from him.
"With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue," Trump said this month. "I'm going to not go any further than that. I'm just going to say it's very special."
Trump stated after the Singapore summit that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to the United States, and Pyongyang has maintained a 14-month hiatus on testing, which Trump frequently claims credit for.
But The Washington Post reported in July that U.S. spy agencies had indications that North Korea was constructing new missiles at the same factory that produced the country's first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
"The second summit must emphasize substance over pageantry because the window for a diplomatic resolution to North Korea's nuclear threat will not remain open indefinitely and absent progress, North Korea's nuclear weapons program will continue to grow," said Kelsey Davenport, who studies North Korea at the Arms Control Association.
At the State Department, U.S. officials want the North to start treating the American envoy for the talks, Stephen Biegun, seriously. The North has repeatedly turned down meetings between him and his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee. Biegun was present at Pompeo's meeting with Kim Yong Chol, and he is expected meet Choi for follow-up negotiations in Stockholm over the weekend.
In Seoul, there is a strong feeling among South Korean officials that the U.S. side will offer a more flexible approach and that Washington is coming around to the idea that both sides need to offer concessions in a phased process - rather than a unilateral, all-or-nothing approach favored by White House hard-liners, such as national security adviser John Bolton.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a news conference Wednesday that her government's approach is to secure a "comprehensive deal toward complete denuclearization" of the North and a "phased implementation." She said Washington "also shares considerably" this approach.
Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's Day speech that North Korea might have to follow a new path if the United States maintains sanctions and demands unilateral action from Pyongyang. But Kim also said the improvement in relations could accelerate if the United States took "corresponding actions."
Kim also told South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year he was prepared to permanently close the Yongbyon nuclear processing site if the United States took "corresponding steps."
Corresponding measures could include a declaration to end the 1950-1953 Korean War, providing humanitarian aid or establishing a "permanent North-U. S. dialogue channel," Kang said. One suggestion is that each country open a liaison office in the other's capital.
This article was written by John Hudson, David Nakamura and Simon Denyer, reporters for The Washington Post. Denyer reported from Tokyo.