U.S. President Donald Trump holstered his fiery rhetoric toward nuclear-armed North Korea and its leader, saying Saturday that he would “absolutely” be open to talks over the phone with Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s remarks, which came at a televised news briefing at Camp David in Maryland, were not the first time the U.S. leader has said he would be willing to talk with his North Korean counterpart. But the comments, coming just ahead of the first formal talks between North and South Korea in more than two years, were a break from his more recalcitrant tone toward Pyongyang.
“Sure, I always believe in talking,” Trump said Saturday. “Absolutely I would do that, I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.” The U.S. president, however, was quick to add that any dialogue would come with conditions, though he did not specify what those may be.
Talks between the North and South are set to take place Tuesday in the truce village of Panmunjom on the border as the rivals try to find ways to cooperate on the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang while also looking at how to improve ties.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a close ally in Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the North Korea regime — welcomed the talks, but voiced caution about the detente in an interview Sunday with NHK.
“North Korea has shown a willingness to cooperate on the Pyeongchang Olympics. I highly evaluate this change,” Abe said, adding that the regime must “abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles” programs.
“Talks for the sake of talks are meaningless,” Abe reiterated.
Also Sunday, North Korea notified the South that it will dispatch a five-member delegation led by Ri Son Gwon, the point man on inter-Korean affairs, to the high-level talks, the Yonhap news agency reported quoting South Korean officials. On Saturday, Seoul proposed sending a five-member delegation led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.
Chang Ung, North Korea’s representative to the International Olympic Committee, said Saturday that the isolated nation is “likely to participate” in next month’s Winter Games, the Kyodo News Agency reported.
Tensions remain high after Kim announced in his annual New Year’s address that North Korea had completed its nuclear weapons program.
At the news conference Saturday, Trump said he had spoken with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who he said had thanked him for his stance, adding that he backed the Olympics talks “100 percent.”
More controversially, Trump appeared to claim credit for bringing the two Koreas together.
“You have to have a certain attitude and you have to be prepared to do certain things and I’m totally prepared to do that,” Trump said, claiming that his tough language and policy of “maximum pressure” had persuaded Pyongyang to speak with Seoul.
Kim, Trump said Saturday, “knows I’m not messing around. I’m not messing around, not even a little bit, not even 1 percent. He understands that.”
Trump had tweeted a similar claim last week, when he wrote: “Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.”
Asked if he believed the talks would address issues other than the Pyeongchang Games, Trump said that he “would love to see it go far beyond the Olympics,” adding that at the U.S. would be involved at the “appropriate time.”
“Right now they’re talking Olympics. It’s a start, it’s a big start,” Trump said.
He added: “If something can happen and something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity. That would be a great thing for the world.”
On the campaign trail and from the White House, Trump has alternately vacillated between offers of sitting down for hamburgers with Kim and threatening to “totally destroy” the North if it threatened the U.S. or its allies. More recently, he even chided his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for “wasting his time” by pursuing dialogue with the North.
A commentary published Sunday by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency played up the scheduled talks, saying “efforts to improve bilateral ties can come to fruition only when the two sides work together based upon cooperation among Korean people.”
But it also said that “the issue … is an internal matter of the Korean people,” warning that “depending on foreign powers” risked complicating talks.
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, dismissed Trump’s claim of credit, noting that Pyongyang had likely seen an opening to gain concessions from the talks.
“That’s like Trump taking credit for gravity because our feet are on the ground,” Oba said. “North Korea didn’t come to the table because of anything Trump did — they are simply following their long-standing playbook of negotiating with the South when there might be opportunity for them.”
Oba applauded Trump’s offer of talks with Kim, which he called a “constructive message,” but lambasted his inconsistency on the North Korean nuclear issue, saying that the president had “undercut” his openness for dialogue with “aggressive, knee-jerk reactions on Twitter.”
“His offer of talks is hard to take seriously unless he becomes more strategic and consistent about that message,” Oba added.