WASHINGTON — Seeking to move forward with a planned high-profile summit, President Trump said Thursday that Kim Jong Un can count on "protections that will be very strong" if North Korea agrees to get rid of nuclear weapons — but also seemed to threaten regime change if it doesn't.
The president appeared to be talking about a possible American pledge not to invade or otherwise try to topple Kim's government, as happened in recent decades in Libya and Iraq. As for Kim, Trump said at one point, "he'd be there; he'd be in his country; he'd be running his country."
Yet the president also during somewhat rambling comments that the Libya model "would take place if we don't make a deal, most likely."
Trump also told reporters that the North Koreans have not officially notified the White House about any problems that could scuttle the summit, even though Kim's state media has threatened twice in recent days to cancel the event.
“Nothing has changed on North Korea that we know of," Trump said during a photo opportunity with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "We have not been told anything ... If the meeting happens, it happens.”
If it doesn't, he added, "we go on to the next step."
Trump didn't specify what that next step would be, but in recent months he has pressured China and other countries to cut off money to North Korea unless and until it gives up nuclear weapons.
Less than a week after Trump announced he would meet Kim on June 12 in Singapore, the North Koreans threatened to cancel the plan over two complaints: Ongoing joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, and the Trump administration's insistence that North Korea end its nuclear weapons programs without some kind of compensation.
The North Koreans have long considered the joint exercises to be a prelude to an invasion; the U.S. and South Koreans have said the exercises are defensive in nature and have been conducted for years.
Trump and aides responded by saying North Korea will have to decide whether the proposed summit comes as scheduled.
"The president is prepared and will be ready to meet," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. "If the North Koreans want to meet, we’ll be there.”
In raising concerns about the meeting and Trump's demand for denuclearization, North Korea cited the fate of Libya. In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi gave up programs for weapons of mass destruction; eight years later, he was deposed and killed after a rebellion sparked by the Arab Spring.
"If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit," said a translated statement from North Korea.
In downplaying North Korea's threats, Trump noted that the objections came after Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump suggested that Kim is getting advice from Xi, who has a vested interest in what happens with his communist allies in North Korea.
"With that being said, my attitude is whatever happens happens," Trump said. "Either way, we're going to be in great shape."
Kim's government cited comments in particular by Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton that Libya could serve as a model for North Korean disarmament.
Trump appeared to undercut Bolton by saying the model for Kim and North Korea should be South Korea and its economic development, not Libya. But Bolton was referring to the negotiations that preceded Libya's decision in 2003 to give up its weapons, not to the 2011 coup that killed Gadhafi.
In any event, Trump said he is willing to address some of North Korea's concerns.
"If we make a deal," he said, "I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy."