SEOUL – President Donald Trump, on his first day on the Korean Peninsula, signaled a willingness to negotiate with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, urging Pyongyang to “come to the table” and “make a deal.”
In a notable shift from his aggressive rhetoric toward North Korea, Trump took a more optimistic tone Tuesday, suggesting that “ultimately, it’ll all work out.” And while he said the United States would use military force if needed, he expressed his strongest inclination yet to deal with rising tensions with Pyongyang through diplomacy.
“It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal that is good for the people of North Korea and for the world,” Trump said during a news conference alongside South Korean president Moon Jae-in. “I do see certain movement.”
Trump said he’s seen “a lot of progress” in dealing with North Korea though he stopped short of saying whether he wanted direct diplomatic talks.
But in a move that could jeopardize Washington’s hopes of bolstered trilateral ties with Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea invited Tuesday a wartime “comfort woman” to attend a state banquet to be hosted for Trump.
The invitation to 88-year-old Lee Yong Soo, who has spoken widely of her suffering due to being forced to work in a military brothel by the Japanese during World War II, could put a damper on presenting a united front by the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office made the announcement before his talks in Seoul with Trump on Tuesday.
Japan and South Korea reached an agreement aimed at “finally and irreversibly” settling the comfort women issue in 2015.
Japanese government officials were said to be puzzled over South Korea’s decision to raise such thorny political issues during Trump’s visit, at a time when ties between Tokyo and Seoul have been improving.
In Tokyo, the top government spokesman expressed frustration over South Korea’s banquet arrangements.
“We will continue to take every opportunity to resolutely appeal to South Korea to steadily implement the agreement,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told daily news conference.
“We have explained our position to South Korea through diplomatic channels,” Suga said, while noting that the agreement has been praised by the international community.
“At a time when stronger coordination between Japan, the United States and South Korea is required to deal with the North Korea issue, and when President Trump has chosen Japan and South Korea as the first stops on his trip, there is a need to avoid making moves that could negatively affect the close coordination between (the three countries),” he said.
Lee was one of about 70 guests invited to the banquet, and was set to be seated at the same table as White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and others, according to Moon’s office.
In addition to visiting foreign countries to talk about her grim experience, Lee has criticized the Japanese government and South Korea’s previous administration for striking the deal on the issue, a protracted sticking point in bilateral relations.
The dispute over comfort women — a euphemism used to refer to the women and girls recruited mostly from Asian countries to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during the war — has been one of the major issues that have frayed Tokyo’s ties with Seoul.
Lee and others have slammed the 2015 agreement as not reflecting the feelings of onetime comfort women.
Japan has asked Moon’s administration to uphold the accord, under which Tokyo provided money to a fund to assist the women and Seoul promised it would strive to settle the issue in consultation with civil society organizations at home.
On the North Korean issue, Trump, meanwhile, also underlined the United States’ military options, noting that three aircraft carrier groups and a nuclear submarine had been deployed to the region. But he said “we hope to God we never have to use” the military options.
During his first day in South Korea, he lowered the temperature on his previously incendiary language about North Korea. There were no threats of unleashing “fire and fury” on the North, as Trump previously warned, nor did the president revive his derisive nickname for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, “Little Rocket Man.”
But he did decree that the dictator is “threatening millions and millions of lives, so needlessly” and highlighted one of the central missions of his first lengthy Asia trip: to enlist many nations in the region, including China and Russia, to cut off Pyongyang’s economic lifeblood and pressure it into giving up its nuclear program.
Moon, who has been eager to solidify a friendship with Trump, said he hoped the president’s visit would be a moment of inflection in the standoff with North Korea and said the two leaders had “agreed to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue in peaceful manner” that would “bring permanent peace” to the peninsula.
“I know that you have put this issue at the top of your security agenda,” said Moon. “So I hope that your visit to Korea and to the Asia Pacific region will serve as an opportunity to relieve some of the anxiety that the Korean people have due to North Korea’s provocations and also serve as a turning point in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.”
When presidents travel overseas, every word is parsed and every action studied. That scrutiny will be intensified in South Korea, Trump’s second stop on his lengthy Asia trip, where he will try to reassure Seoul while risking antagonizing Pyongyang. Trump has suggested that even while in range of Pyongyang’s missiles, he will not change his inflammatory rhetoric.
He began with a visit to Camp Humphreys, a joint U.S.-Korean military base, but even as he walked among the weapons of war, he struck a hopeful note, saying: “It always works out.”
Much like he did in his visit to Japan, Trump indicated he would place the interlocking issues of security and trade at the heart of his visit. He praised South Korea for significant purchases of American military equipment and urged the two nations to have more equitable trade relationship. Moon said the two agreed on lifting the warhead payload limits on South Korean ballistic missiles and cooperating on strengthening South Korea’s defense capabilities through the acquisition or development of advanced weapons systems.
Trump also pushed his economic agenda, saying that the current U.S.-Korea trade agreement was “not successful and not very good for the United States.” But he said that he had a “terrific” meeting scheduled on trade, adding, “hopefully that’ll start working out and working out so that we create lots of jobs in the United States, which is one of the very important reasons I’m here.”
At Camp Humphreys, Trump shook hands with American and Korean service members and sat with troops for lunch in a large mess hall U.S. and South Korean officials have said the base visit was meant to underscore the countries’ ties and South Korea’s commitment to contributing to its own defense. Burden-sharing is a theme Trump has stressed ever since his presidential campaign.
But Trump is skipping the customary trip to the demilitarized zone separating north and south — a pilgrimage made by every U.S. president except one since Ronald Reagan as a demonstration of solidarity with the South. Trump has not ruled out a military strike and backed up his strong words about North Korea by sending a budget request to Capitol Hill on Monday for $4 billion to support “additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners.”
The other question looming over the visit is Trump’s relationship with Moon, with whom he does not nearly share the close friendship he has with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump and Moon agree on the need to pressure the North with sanctions and other deterrence measures. But Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the North, if necessary, repeatedly insisted that all options are on the table and suggested that Moon was being too lenient on the north. Moon, meanwhile, favors dialogue as the best strategy for defusing the nuclear tension and vehemently opposes a potential military clash that could cause enormous casualties in South Korea.
But Moon played the gracious host Tuesday. Following the example set by Japan and other countries that have welcomes Trump with lavish greetings, Moon rolled out an elaborate greeting for the president, including an elaborate ceremony featuring colorful costumes and flags at South Korea’s stately presidential residence known as the Blue House. And he made a point of saluting the recent gains of the U.S. stock market, a favorite Trump talking point, and congratulating the president ahead of the one-year anniversary of his election.
Trump smiled broadly. consideration, though there is disagreement within the administration about the risks.
The South Korea leg of Trump’s trip is an effort to present a united front despite differences with Moon over how to confront North Korea, as well as Trump’s complaints over the two countries’ trade agreement and South Korean defense spending.
Trump has criticized Moon over his support for diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang — something the U.S. president once called “appeasement” — and has threatened to pull out of a free trade pact between the two countries.
“Hopefully that will start working out, and working out so that we create a lot of jobs in the United States which is one of the reasons that I’m here,” Trump told reporters, referring to trade issues between the two countries.
On a personal level, Trump and Moon have not developed the same close rapport as the U.S. president has with Abe or even China’s Xi Jinping. Part of Moon’s mission during the visit will likely be to strengthen his personal ties with Trump, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Now poor President Moon is playing catch-up ball because everyone acknowledges that he’s not bonding quite as much with Donald Trump as the rest of the region,” said O’Hanlon. He said Moon could face pressure “to deliver a stronger relationship” whereas “in most other parts of the world, people are trying to keep their distance from Donald Trump.”
Trump has rattled some U.S. allies with his vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States, for deriding Kim as a “Rocket Man on a suicide mission” and for dismissing as pointless any diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
Kim, who has also made clear he has little interest in negotiations, at least until North Korea develops a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States, has called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
The North accuses the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
Trump’s visit to Camp Humphreys gave him a first-hand view of the massive military assets the United States has in place in South Korea, but it also could serve as a reminder of the cost in U.S. military lives — as well as the potential massive South Korean civilian losses — if the current crisis spirals into war.
Trump, however, will steer clear of the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) zone on the border between the two Koreas — where other U.S. presidents have visited — a move that might have been seen by North Korea as more of a provocation.