WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Donald Trump all but rolled out the red carpet for a top North Korean official Friday, casting protocol aside and embarking on a characteristically high-stakes gamble.
A jet black US government Chevrolet Suburban rolled through the South West gate of the White House, up the scorching driveway and pulled to halt.
Hurriedly, and slightly anxiously, a phalanx of wiry North Korean security personnel disgorged — one accidently closing the door on his colleague in the rush.
Then exited the more composed, much smaller and slightly less trim figure of Kim Yong Chol.
Spymaster, military general, envoy and apparatchik, the 72-year-old had become the most senior North Korean official to set foot at the White House in two decades.
Standard protocol would suggest an official of his rank — particularly one who is under sanction and who represents a geopolitical adversary — would be whisked, out of sight, into the bowels of the building for a closed door meeting.
Not in Trump s White House.
A fellow general was on hand to greet him — John Kelly, President Donald Trump s chief of staff — who escorted him along the White House colonnade and into the Oval Office for a presidential meeting, a rare honor for a non-head of state, much less one from a brutal regime.
White House aides had expected the sit-down with the president, if it happened, to be short, just long enough to exchange pleasantries and a letter from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
“That is something that had been considered from the beginning” one White House official said. “The president wanted to keep his options open.”
In the end it ran almost 90 minutes. “We talked about almost everything. We talked about a lot,” said Trump.
“It went very well. It s really a get-to-know-you kind of a situation.”
Kim s White House visit was not on the official presidential schedule, but had been rumored for days.
Then, shortly after midday, a small group of White House pool reporters — including AFP — received a cryptic email to meet at a designated point for an unspecified reason in seven minutes.
If allowing coverage of Kim s arrival was designed to send a signal, so too was the decision about who participated for the US side.
As Kim arrived, peering through a nearby glass door, was the familiar silvery mustache of John Bolton, Trump s hawkish national security advisor.
Having offended North Korea with comments that hinted at regime change, he largely stayed away from the cameras and stayed out of the Oval meeting, aides said.
A White House official cautioned against reading too much into Bolton s absence, but you can be certain Pyongyang got the message: Trump wants to play nice.
The president underscored that message again and again, when he was asked whether his campaign of “maximum pressure,” which included sanctions and threats of annihilation, was over.
“I don t even want to use the term maximum pressure anymore because I don t want to use that term because we re getting along,” Trump said. “You see the relationship. We re getting along.”
“We had hundreds of new sanctions ready to go on,” he added. “I m not going to put them on until such time as the talks break down.”
Trump even admitted that he had not raised the issue of human rights, as he said he was looking forward to the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un.
But as he stood side-by-side smiling with Kim Yong Chol outside the Oval Office, before waiving him goodbye, there was a small but poignant reminder of the scale of Trump s task.
On Kim s chest, just in front of his heart, sat a red flag pin featuring images of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, the previous two leaders of the Kim dynasty and the current leader s father and grandfather.
One started North Korea s nuclear program, the other refused to give it up.
Trump is betting he can make a deal and that North Korea s current ruler will break with decades old family tradition. Friday s meeting showed he is willing to stake America s reputation on it.