“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.”
- President Donald Trump, at a news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in , Seoul, June 30, 2019
Trump crossed the demilitarized zone on Sunday, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to enter North Korea. It was his third meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
That’s a lot of face time and photo ops. What has Trump gotten in return, aside from a hazy commitment from Kim to denuclearize North Korea? Well, at least Kim is open to discussion, Trump says, after “constantly” rebuffing requests to meet with President Barack Obama.
There’s just one problem with this claim - a total lack of evidence.
The White House provided no evidence for Trump’s claim that Obama tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to meet with Kim. Neither the White House press office nor the National Security Council responded to our questions.
No public records or news articles show Obama tried to meet with Kim. Former U.S. intelligence officials and experts on North Korea said they knew of no evidence for Trump’s claim.
“I don’t know where he’s getting that,” James R. Clapper Jr., who was director of national intelligence during the Obama years, said on CNN. “In all the deliberations that I 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 Chairman Kim. That’s news to me.”
“I am not aware of any attempts by the Obama administration to seek a meeting with Kim Jong Un,” Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told us. Cha was director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
“Crossing into North Korea, that is something you would imagine the president would do after we got all the nukes out of North Korea and we signed a peace treaty,” Cha said on MSNBC. “The one thing that’s different this time - it’s not the lifting of sanctions; we’ve done that before - the one thing that’s different this time is this bromance, this effort to try to really gain Kim Jong Un’s trust. Dictators generally don’t trust anybody, so I’m not really quite certain whether this bromance diplomacy is really going to lead to a denuclearization agreement.”
Perhaps there was a secret back channel to set up an Obama-Kim meeting at one point? It’s conceivable, but some of the top Obama advisers who would know said Trump’s claim was false.
“There is simply nothing to this,” Ben Rhodes, who was Obama’s deputy national security adviser, wrote in an email. “It’s not an exaggeration, it’s completely invented. I was in the PDB [presidential daily briefing] and on the policy committees, and I was never in a single discussion about Obama meeting Kim Jong Un.”
Rhodes added, “This isn’t the first time he’s had to make something up about Obama to justify his North Korea policy - remember the whole thing about how Obama was about to go to war with Kim?”
Daniel Russel was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Obama, and before that an adviser on North Korea issues in Obama’s National Security Council. He called Trump’s claim “patently untrue.”
“There was never an effort or a plan to request or propose a meeting with Kim Jong Un,” said Russel, now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “That’s patently untrue. We never asked for such a meeting.”
Jeremy Bash was the chief of staff at the CIA and then at the Defense Department during the Obama administration. He denied Trump’s claim on NBC’s “Today Show.”
“I was at the Pentagon when Kim Jong Un came to power. I don’t think that’s accurate at all,” Bash said. “In fact, in the three summits - in Singapore, in Hanoi, and now at the DMZ - the president has put Kim Jong Un on the world stage. He’s delivered a major propaganda victory. And again, my concern is: If it’s harmless, OK. It could be harmful if they don’t actually deliver results.”
Susan Rice was Obama’s national security adviser and later U.N. ambassador. She denied Trump’s claim on Twitter: “At the risk of stating the obvious, this is horse-s—-.”
(When we reached out to Rice, a spokeswoman told us her tweet was “on the record.” Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who was CIA director under George W. Bush and Obama, used the same expletive on Twitter to contradict Trump’s claim.)
Wendy Sherman, a North Korea expert who was undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, denied the claim that Obama sought but couldn’t get a meeting with Kim.
“Absolutely not,” Sherman said on MSNBC. “In fact, as President Trump himself has said, the Obama administration approach was strategic patience.”
After their first meeting in Singapore on June 12, 2018, Trump and Kim signed a brief and vague joint statement pledging “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The United States and North Korea have been down this path before, only to see negotiations break down.
President Bill Clinton reached an agreement that shuttered the Yongbyon nuclear facility and froze Pyongyang’s production of plutonium for eight years. That deal collapsed during the Bush administration, but then Bush made some headway. After North Korea’s first nuclear test, the Bush administration got the North Koreans to dismantle a cooling tower at Yongbyon.
The Obama administration in 2012 reached a short-lived agreement with North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons tests and uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex. That agreement came after meetings in Beijing between U.S. and North Korean officials, but not the heads of state.
The 2012 deal fell apart after North Korea launched a rocket and displayed “road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade,” according to a timeline from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama then took a different route. He gradually escalated sanctions on North Korea while refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang until it gave up its nuclear weapons program, a policy that came to be known as “strategic patience.”
“When senior government officials traveled to North Korea to retrieve imprisoned Americans … we would have been open to them being received by Kim Jong Un,” Russel said. As a former president, Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea in 2010 to retrieve hostages and was received by Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader at the time, Russel said. Jimmy Carter was received by Kim Il Sung during his visit in 1994, he added.
“But never did the Obama administration propose or request a meeting with Kim Jong Un,” Russel said. “We understood that it would have had tremendous value for the North Korean leader, but would have had value for the United States and the world only if the substantive groundwork had been laid through tough-minded and sustained nuclear negotiations.”
As regular readers know, when we fact-check politicians, the burden of proof is on them. In this case, the White House provided no evidence for Trump’s claim.
No public records or news articles show that Obama ever tried to meet with Kim. Former U.S. intelligence officials and experts on North Korea said they knew of no evidence for Trump’s claim. Many of Obama’s top advisers on North Korea said Trump’s claim was false.
In fact, Obama’s strategy after 2012 was to escalate sanctions and avoid entreaties to North Korea. He very clearly told the world he was not interested in a meeting, but Trump did not get the message and earns a maximum Four Pinocchios.