Prior to his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, President Donald Trump made the unfounded claim that Barack Obama tried many times to meet with Kim, but was rebuffed. Obama administration officials and experts on U.S.-North Korea relations say that’s not true, and Trump offered no evidence to back up his claim.
Trump’s comments were made in Seoul, South Korea, on June 30 just prior to what Trump described as a last-minute decision to meet Kim. Trump later took several steps across the border to shake hands with Kim, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea. Trump boasted that it was the kind of meeting Obama and his administration “were begging for … constantly” but that Kim refused.
Trump, June 30: They couldn’t have meetings. Nobody was going to meet. President Obama wanted to meet, and Chairman Kim would not meet him. The Obama administration was begging for a meeting. They were begging for meetings constantly. And Chairman Kim would not meet with him. And for some reason, we have a certain chemistry, or whatever.
Several Obama administration officials promptly and vehemently contradicted Trump’s account.
“At the risk of stating the obvious, this is horse-sh*t,” tweeted Susan Rice, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and as Obama’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2017.
Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to Obama, added his voice on Twitter as well: “Trump is lying. I was there for all 8 years. Obama never sought a meeting with Kim Jong Un. Foreign policy isn’t reality television it’s reality.”
Rhodes told CNN that Obama “never even considered” seeking a meeting with Kim. “There’s no mystery here: It’s just a lie with no supporting evidence and no basis in anything. It’s not even an exaggeration, it’s just not true.”
And on CNN’s “State of the Union,” James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence for most of Obama’s presidency, said he was puzzled by Trump’s claim. “In all the deliberations that I have participated in on North Korea during the Obama administration, I can recall no instance whatever where President Obama ever indicated any interest whatsoever in meeting with the — Chairman Kim,” Clapper said.
We reached out to the Trump press office, but it did not provide any further information.
It’s true that during a debate in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Obama famously said that he would be willing to meet with leaders in North Korea and other enemy nations without any preconditions.
July 24, 2007, CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate:
Q: Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
Obama: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.
And during his inaugural address, Obama again hinted at a willingness to meet with the leaders of rogue nations.
Obama, Jan. 20, 2009: To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
But once he took office, there’s no evidence that Obama ever made an effort to seek a face-to-face meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, or later with his son, Kim Jong Un.
Just a few months into Obama’s presidency, North Korea attempted to launch a satellite over Japan in April 2009, and then tested a second nuclear device in May, Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told us via email. “The Obama administration took a very circumspect approach to Pyongyang after that,” Pollack, who is also editor of the Nonproliferation Review, said.
Early on, the Obama administration adopted a policy that came to be known as “strategic patience” with North Korea. It was a phrase coined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2009, as the U.S. attempted to get North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks, a series of negotiations involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. with the aim of getting North Korea to denuclearize.
Clinton, Dec. 10, 2009: It does remain to be seen whether and when the North Koreans will return to the Six-Party Talks. But the bottom line is that these were exploratory talks, not negotiations. They were intended to do exactly what they did: reaffirm the commitment of the United States to the Six-Party process, to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and to discuss with the North Koreans their reactions to what we are asking them to do in order to move forward. I think that for a preliminary meeting it was quite positive. The approach that our Administration is taking is of strategic patience in close coordination with our Six-Party allies, and I think that making it clear to the North Koreans what we had expected and how we were moving forward is exactly what was called for.
In late February 2012, the U.S. entered a tentative “understanding” with North Korea known as the “Leap Day Deal,” in which North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to allow inspection of some of its enrichment facilities in exchange for U.S. food aid.
The deal collapsed several weeks later after North Korea announced plans for a satellite launch, which the U.S. believed to be a cover for missile testing, Pollack said. “Then, in February 2013, North Korea tested its third nuclear device on the eve of the State of the Union,” he said.
Here’s what Obama said in that State of the Union Address in 2013: “America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
“Even when the [North Koreans], coaxed by the Chinese, signaled that they were willing to talk, the U.S. declined, insisting on even tougher conditions than in February 2012,” Pollack said. “And that was where things remained through the end of the administration.”
In other words, Pollack said, Trump’s claim is “pure fantasy.”
“President Obama showed no interest in meeting with either Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un,” Pollack said. “Especially after the collapse of the Feb 2012 ‘Leap Day Deal’ and the third nuclear test about a year later, Obama showed hardly any interest in negotiating with Pyongyang at all. The entire notion of ‘strategic patience’ meant ignoring the issue to the extent possible.”
“There is no basis for Trump’s claim that Obama begged for a meeting with Kim,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told us via email. “The Obama administration was open to negotiations with North Korea, but they set onerous preconditions for talks. Requiring that North Korea take significant steps toward denuclearization prior to diplomatic engagement is a far cry from ‘begging’ for a meeting.”
Davenport noted that in July 2016, the Obama administration personally sanctioned Kim for human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture.
“That is not a step a leader takes if they are desperate for dialogue.” Davenport said.
It’s worth noting that in October 2018 Trump made a very different claim about the Obama administration, saying that “somebody in their administration” told him “we haven’t thought about” meeting with North Korea.
Trump, Oct. 6, 2018: And President Obama said at my meeting with him he said, “The biggest problem we have by far is North Korea.” They would have gone to war. Millions and millions of people would have been killed. Millions of people. And I said to somebody in their administration, “Have you ever talked? Have you ever agreed to meet? Have you ever like, ‘Let’s sit down and talk’?” “Well we haven’t thought about.” Oh, I see you’re going to war, you’re not going to talk.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, told us via email that Trump’s claim about Obama repeatedly seeking a face-to-face meeting with Kim, but that Kim rejected him, is “more wrong than right — but there is something interesting about it nonetheless.”
“Obama offered early in his administration, including in his inaugural address, to meet with rogue-state leaders,” O’Hanlon said. “But then North Korea under [Kim Jong Un] starting testing nukes and acting in a very hard-line way. After that, I don’t believe the Obama administration pushed hard for face-to-face head-of-state meetings. So on that point, my recollection is that Trump is not right.”
“However,” O’Hanlon added, “I do think that Trump and Kim have a certain chemistry, and I am hopeful that Trump’s risk-taking and unconventional approach to North Korea diplomacy has a chance to work.”
We take no position on whether Trump has developed a chemistry with the North Korean leader, or whether the face-to-face meetings were a good idea. But there is no evidence for Trump’s claim that “President Obama wanted to meet, and Chairman Kim would not meet him” or that “the Obama administration was begging for a meeting.”
We can’t say what may have been discussed between the nations behind closed doors, but several Obama administration officials who would have been privy to those discussions said Trump is wrong, as did several experts on U.S. -North Korea relations. And the president offered no evidence to back up his claim.