The strangest epistolary saga of the Trump era got a little stranger over the weekend. First, on Saturday, in remarks at a White House press briefing, U.S. President Donald Trump, when asked about how things were going with North Korea, said that everything was fine.
“I think we are doing fine,” Trump said. Despite March being the busiest month of North Korean ballistic missile testing in the country’s history, with nine separate launches, Trump has been unfazed. He added that he had received a “nice note” from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, “recently.”
That claim in itself was not all that surprising. The two leaders have maintained something of a drumbeat of letter-based correspondence. North Korean state media pictured Kim last year in his executive office with a letter from Trump. The letters have come to symbolize a personal rapport between the two leaders, even as diplomatic relations between their countries remain acrimonious.
In recent high-level statements, North Korean officials have sought to officially distinguish this aspect of the relationship, noting that the Trump-Kim relationship exists on a separate plane from the broader bilateral.
But matters took a turn over the weekend, when the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs swiftly reacted to Trump’s Saturday comments. On Sunday, a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Kim had sent no letter to Trump.
“The relations between the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S. are not an issue to be taken up just for diversion,” the statement said, suggesting that the U.S. president was attempting to politically benefit from his mention of a letter from Kim. “Nor should (the Trump-Kim relationship) be misused for meeting selfish purposes.”
The statement from Pyongyang admitted that it was possible Trump could have been referring to an older bout of correspondence, such as an exchange he had with Kim in March over the COVID–19 pandemic. “It is uncertain to exactly know if the U.S. President was reminiscing on past letters that were received and sent,” the statement Sunday added.
Trump held two summits with Kim, one each in 2018 and 2019, plus a short impromptu meeting in the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone in 2019. U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations, however, have been largely log-jammed since the February 2019 Hanoi summit, where the two sides were unable to agree on the issue of sanctions relief.
With no follow-up from the White House since the North Korean denial of a letter, the matter remains a he-said-they-said for now. The saga of the Trump-Kim relationship, however, continues.