WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump warned Tuesday his landmark summit with Kim Jong Un may not take place as planned, but stressed he believes the inscrutable North Korean leader is "serious" about denuclearization.
Hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, Trump did little to quell speculation about the historic first summit between US and North Korean leaders, set for next month in Singapore.
"It may not work out for June 12," Trump said, adding in a now familiar non-committal riff, "if it does not happen, maybe it will happen later."
Politically, Trump has invested heavily in the success of the summit, and so privately most US officials, as well as outside observers believe it will go ahead.
But as the date draws near, differences between the two sides and the astronomically high stakes are coming into sharp relief.
Success could lead to peace on the Korean peninsula and end the threat of nuclear war. Failure could all but destroy hopes of a peaceful solution to the crisis.
"You never know about deals," Trump said. "I've made a lot of deals. You never really know."
North Korea's willingness to denuclearize was plunged into doubt this month when the government denounced US demands for "unilateral nuclear abandonment."
Pyongyang also canceled at the last minute a high-level meeting with the South in protest over joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.
Trump said, despite this, he believes the North Korean leader is willing to give up nukes. "I do think he is serious. I think he is absolutely very serious."
Trump again raised the prospect of a windfall for Kim if he mothballs weapons programs. "He will be extremely happy" if the deal works out, Trump said. "He will be very happy."
Moon's trip to the White House represented an effort to salvage the rare diplomatic opening, that increasingly appears in increasing trouble.
Trump indicated that separate high-level talks between Moon and Kim may, or may not take place. "Right now, he doesn't know whether or not he has a meeting," Trump said of Moon.
South Korea -- deeply worried about Kim's bellicose weapons testing and Trump's similarly bellicose warnings about "fire and fury" -- was instrumental in convincing the two Cold War foes to sit down and talk.
Moon sent his own national security advisor to the White House in March, carrying an offer of talks and word that North Korea may be willing to abandon nuclear weapons, an enticing prospect.
Trump surprised his guests, his own aides and the world by summarily accepting the meeting, seeing an opportunity to "do a deal" and avoid military confrontation.
Pyongyang is on the verge of marrying nuclear and missile technology allowing it to hit the continental United States with a nuke, a capability Washington sees as wholly unacceptable.
'We'll see what happens'
Trump also surprised many by offering Kim an upfront security guarantee, allowing him to stay in power, and suggested that Kim's apparent about-face may have been at the behest of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
"There was a difference when Kim Jong Un left China the second time," Trump said. "There was a different attitude after that meeting and I was a little surprised.
"And I think things changed after that meeting so I can't say that I am happy about it."
Analysts saw North Korea's perceived slow peddling as evidence of what they feared all along, that Pyongyang may have been playing for time -- hoping to ease sanctions and "maximum pressure," or of South Korea overtorquing the prospects of a deal.
"The current episode of tension reflects a wide and dangerous expectation gap between the United States and North Korea," said Eric Gomez of the CATO Institute.
"Denuclearization is not off the table for the North, but it expects the United States to end the so-called 'hostile policy' as a precondition for denuclearization."
It is far from clear what that means concretely, but it could include the withdrawal of 30,000 US troops from the Korean peninsula.
With just weeks to go and little clarity on what will be discussed or what happens if talks fail, some Korea watchers predicted fireworks during Trump's talks with Moon.
"It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea's willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that," said Robert Kelly of Pusan National University.
Yonhap news agency quoted a Blue House official as saying Moon would "likely tell President Trump what to expect and what not to expect from Kim."