By Steve Holland
PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States is engaged in direct talks at "extremely high levels" with North Korea to try to set up a summit between him and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
Trump made the comment as he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened two days of talks at the president's Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, meetings that are to include a round of golf.
Trump said he believed there was a lot of good will in the diplomatic push, but also said it is possible the summit - first proposed in March and which the president said could take place in late May or early June - may not happen.
Efforts to arrange an unprecedented meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders have helped ease tensions over Pyongyang's development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. Kim has agreed to discuss denuclearization, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.
"We have had direct talks at very high levels – extremely high levels - with North Korea. I really believe there’s a lot of good will; a lot of good things are happening. We’ll see what happens. As I always say, we’ll see what happens, because ultimately it’s the end result that matters, not the fact that we’re thinking about having a meeting or having a meeting," Trump said.
Trump did not identify who on the U.S. side was talking to the North Koreans and senior U.S. officials would not comment.
Contacts between the two side in recent weeks have involved U.S. intelligence and State Department officials, a U.S. official told Reuters this month. The most senior U.S. official known to have visited Pyongyang in recent years was then-U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.
Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, said U.S. officials are looking at five different locations for a meeting with Kim. Asked if any of those were in the United States, Trump said "no".
A U.S. official said sites in southeast Asia and in Europe were among those under discussion. Kim has rarely left North Korea.
Speculation has centered on a range of sites including Pyongyang, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, Stockholm, Geneva and Mongolia.
Talks between Trump and Abe are largely focused on the prospective summit with Kim as Japan seeks a U.S. commitment that any denuclearization deal the president seals with Kim will include not just long-range missiles but those that could be aimed at Japan.
"For the North Korean issue, I’d like to underscore the importance of achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, as well as the abandonment of missile programs of North Korea," Abe told Trump.
Abe also obtained an agreement from Trump to bring up the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, a highly emotive issue for the Japanese.
'IT'S POSSIBLE THINGS WON'T GO WELL'
Trump stressed that the two sides in this week's talks are unified.
"Japan and ourselves are locked, and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea," he said.
Trump said it was possible that diplomatic efforts to arrange a Kim summit will fall short and if it does not happen, the United States and its allies will maintain pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions.
"It’s possible things won’t go well and we won’t have the meetings and we’ll just continue to go on this very strong path we have taken," he said.
Trump also backed efforts between South Korea and the North aimed to end a state of war that has existed between the two countries since 1953.
"They do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war. People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended. It’s going on right now. And they are discussing an end to the war. Subject to a deal they have my blessing and they do have my blessing to discuss that," he said.
Both leaders could use a successful summit to give themselves a political boost at home. Trump has been hounded by controversies linked to an investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election, and Abe is struggling with declining popularity because of scandals over suspected cronyism.
Trump has forged close ties with Abe during his 15 months in power and the two have bonded over rounds of golf during Abe's last visit to Florida more than a year ago and Trump's visit to Tokyo last November.
Japan fears Trump will try to link vital security matters with touchy trade topics. Tokyo is eager to avoid being pushed into talks on a two-way free trade agreement aimed not only at market access but at currency policies, something South Korea recently accepted when it renegotiated a trade deal with the United States.
Another irritant on trade is that Japan has not been given an exemption to tariffs on steel and aluminum exports to the United States, unlike the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
While Trump has said he prefers bilateral trade deals over multilateral ones because America can win a better deal with just one country, he recently instructed United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow to reopen talks for the United States to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump killed that pact when he took office last year, but said recently he was open to rejoining on better terms. The 11 other countries in the TPP talks pressed ahead after Washington dropped out.
Kudlow appeared to indicate there was little prospect of immediate progress on rejoining. The United States was involved in eight years of formal negotiations on the TPP before it withdrew.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Kaori Kaneko and Stanley White in Tokyo; Editing by Mary Milliken and James Dalgleish)