WASHINGTON — Even before President Donald Trump had read the letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday, it was "special delivery."
Instead of bringing Kim Jong Un's number-two unceremoniously through a side door, the White House rolled out the red carpet for Kim Yong Chol, North Korea's former longtime spy chief. Even though Gen. Kim remains under Treasury Department sanctions, with a record of hostile actions against the United States, he was given the kind of reception usually accorded a top diplomat from a friendly nation.
What does this signify? Clearly, Trump has come a long way from his threats of "fire and fury" and insults against "little rocket man," to say nothing of his New Year's tweets comparing his "nuclear button" with Kim Jong Un's. He needs a show of good relations between the U.S. and North Korea as much as Kim Jong Un does, and immediately announced that the summit between the two men was back on for June 12 in Singapore.
The White House welcome for Kim Jong Un's right-hand man was unprecedented in almost every regard. Unlike the only previous meeting between a sitting American president and a high-ranking North Korean official — President Bill Clinton's Oval Office session with Marshal Jo Myong Rok, 18 years ago — Kim Yong Chol was greeted at the South Portico by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly. Reporters and cameras were positioned to record them strolling along the colonnade to the Oval Office.
Once they were inside, the meeting lasted twice as long as Clinton's had with Marshal Jo. With cameras rolling, Trump then escorted Kim back to his motorcade, chatting all the while. Before bidding his visitor farewell, he paused to greet the other members of Kim's delegation and posed for still photos.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
And he described relations with North Korea afterward as "good," saying: "I think the relationship we have right now with North Korea is as good as it's been in a long time."
In contrast, Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, sent a military representative to meet with Clinton. Although that representative wore a business suit in Washington to meet with Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and presented what the U.S. considered a surprisingly detailed missile proposal, by the time he got to the White House only an hour later, he had changed into his full-dress military uniform.
The signal was duly noted, Clinton's advisor for North Korea, Wendy Sherman, recalled in an interview with NBC News Friday. As she remembered it, "the military uniform was a message, the message was that they had a strong military."
Marshal Jo handed Clinton a letter inviting him to come to the North Korean capital a week later. That was ruled out as impractical, from a security and diplomatic standpoint. Instead, Albright mobilized her forces, moving security and communications equipment overland through the demilitarized zone to Pyongyang for the first time, and landed in Pyongyang in 10 days.
Clinton later told reporters (including this one) that he had every intention of normalizing diplomatic relations with the North, but ran out of time when George W. Bush was elected president.
Friday, Trump said the two men talked about "everything," telling reporters later, "Can you believe that we're talking about ending the Korean War? You're talking about 70 years."
He also mentioned that he told Gen. Kim he would hold off on imposing new sanctions for now. "Why would I do that when we're talking so nicely?" he asked.
The apparent warmth of Friday's visit was accompanied by a noticeable lowering of expectations for the summit. "It's a 'getting to know you' meeting, plus, and that can be a very positive thing," Trump said.
But he also called it a beginning, a process, that would require more than the June 12 meeting to accomplish his goals. Outside critics of what he initially projected for the Singapore summit are calling Friday's comments a healthy corrective: few people believed North Korea would ever give up its entire nuclear and missile program and accept outside inspectors any time soon, if ever.
The atmospherics were probably also improved by the cast of U.S. officials in the Oval Office. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was clearly the President's point man, as was Kelly. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who almost scuttled the summit last week with his harsh comparison of the summit goals to the "Libyan model" (which ended with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi being overthrown and killed eight years after disarming), was nowhere to be seen.
Insiders say that was deliberate. The emphasis now is on diplomacy, and making history. And that most impatient chief executive, Donald Trump, now seems to have been persuaded it may take longer than he originally thought.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we walked out and everything was settled from sitting down for a couple of hours?" he said Friday. "I don't see that happening. I see it happening over a period of time. And, frankly, I said, 'Take your time.'"
An interim step, say U.S. officials, could be establishing diplomatic Interest Sections in each capital, fostering better communication (and intelligence listening posts) as the U.S. has had in the past with Cuba.
The Kim ruling family has fooled three previous American presidents with promises to disarm. It will be nothing short of miraculous if this administration, with an inexperienced commander-in-chief and vacancies at almost every level of its diplomatic corps, can pull off what has never before been done.