WASHINGTON/SEOUL – U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with Kim Jong Un amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program if the circumstances were right.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said Monday in an Oval Office interview. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and as recently as last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. would negotiate with Kim’s regime only if it made credible steps toward giving up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
“Most political people would never say that,” Trump said of his willingness to meet with the reclusive Kim, “but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
Asked later about Trump’s comments, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “clearly conditions are not there right now” for a meeting. He said “we’ve got to see their provocative behavior ratcheted down.”
North Korea has become the most urgent national security threat and foreign policy issue facing Trump as his first 100 days in office passed. Kim’s regime has continued developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international condemnation and sanctions. Military analysts have said North Korea is on course to develop a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland as soon as 2020, during Trump’s term in office.
On Tuesday, South Korea said a U.S. missile shield deployed in the country against China’s objections is now technically ready for operations. South Korea’s Defense Ministry had said previously it expected the system to be fully operational by the end of the year.
The news came the same day as the North accused the United States of pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war after a pair of U.S. B-1B Lancer strategic bombers flew training drills with the South Korean and Japanese militaries in another show of strength.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a briefing in Seoul that Monday’s joint drill was conducted to deter provocations by the North and to test readiness against another potential nuclear test.
The U.S. Air Force said in a statement the bombers had flown from Guam to conduct training exercises with the South Korean and Japanese militaries.
North Korea said the bombers conducted “a nuclear bomb-dropping drill against major objects” in its territory at a time when Trump and “other U.S. warmongers are crying out for making a preemptive nuclear strike” on the North.
“The reckless military provocation is pushing the situation on the Korean Peninsula closer to the brink of nuclear war,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday.
Trump warned in a separate interview Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible, while China said last week the situation on the Korean Peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
In a show of force, the United States has already sent an aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, to the Sea of Japan to conduct drills with South Korea and Japan.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn called for stronger vigilance because of continuing provocations by Seoul’s poor and isolated neighbor, and for countries such as China to increase pressure on the North.
“I am asking foreign and security ministries to further strengthen military readiness in order for North Korea not to miscalculate,” Hwang told a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Experts said that a Kim-Trump summit would be difficult to imagine at this point.
Even if the conditions were right, from the U.S. perspective, a meeting would be unlikely. Kim has not met any major world leader since taking charge after his father’s death in late 2011 and hasn’t left his isolated country. His nuclear program gives him prestige at home. And leaving North Korea, even for a short period, could expose him to the risk of a coup by opponents in the military or Pyongyang’s elite, analysts say.
“They won’t meet anytime in the near future,” said historian Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, when asked about a potential meeting ahead of the Trump interview. “Negotiations are not going to work because North Korea is never going to denuclearize.”
Kim’s predecessors weren’t much more accessible or cooperative. Over more than two decades, six-nation talks, bilateral negotiations, food aid and U.N. sanctions have all failed to deter the Kim dynasty’s quest for a nuclear arsenal. That has left the Trump administration relying increasingly on China, North Korea’s neighbor and top trading partner, to exert pressure on the regime.
While Trump didn’t spell out what conditions would have to be met for him to sit down with Kim, Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat in South Korea, said “it’s almost impossible to imagine North Korea meeting the conditions that would allow such a meeting to occur.”
“North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when it was caught cheating, violated every one of the denuclearization commitments it made, and now threatens the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons,” Revere, a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, said in an email. “That’s hardly the basis for a presidential meeting with Kim Jong Un.”
Tensions have escalated since Trump vowed in January that he wouldn’t let North Korea develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the U.S., and North Korea has labeled American military moves in the region as acts of “intimidation and blackmail.”
North Korea has continued to test missiles this year after carrying out two nuclear tests last year.
While dispatching an aircraft carrier group and a submarine to the region, the Trump administration has emphasized the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy to persuade North Korea to curtail its nuclear program. Trump has said he’s encouraged by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to defuse the situation. Trump and Xi met last month at the U.S. president’s private club in Florida and have talked several times since.
In an editorial late Monday, China’s Global Times, a state-backed tabloid that does not necessarily reflect national policy, said the United States should not rely on China alone to pressure Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear ambitions.
April could prove a “turning point,” the paper said, but “Washington … must also continue to exert its own efforts on the issue.”
But Trump’s statement that he would be “honored” to meet Kim — as well as his description of the young North Korean leader over the weekend as “a pretty smart cookie” — have sparked fresh concern over his approach to dealing with Pyongyang.
“I don’t see much coherence in the Trump administration’s statements,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If there is to be any hope of getting Kim Jong Un back to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearization, the U.S. has to articulate a clear position.”
John Sifton, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Trump had established a troubling pattern of paying compliments to foreign leaders with shaky human rights or autocratic reputations. “You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that he admires leaders who ignore the rule of law,” he said.
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