Ditching his derisive “Rocket Man” label for North Korea’s leader, U.S. President Donald Trump shifted his assessment of Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, calling the dictator — whose country is said to operate a system of gulags — a “very honorable” man.
Ahead of talks with Kim that the American leader said would happen “very soon,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House that North Korea had said it wanted to hold the summit “as soon as possible.”
Trump said the U.S. had been having “very good discussions with the North” about the planned talks, which could come next month or in June.
“Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we’re seeing,” Trump said. “Now, a lot of promises have been made by North Korea over the years, but they’ve never been in this position.”
The praise for the North Korean leader is a dramatic change of course for Trump — who met with defectors from the reclusive country in February in a move meant to highlight human rights violations.
It also represents a significant shift for the United States, which has long condemned the Kim family dynasty for its brutality and deception. Trump himself last year ripped into Kim, blasting him as a “Little Rocket Man” and calling it “hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions.”
In its annual report on human rights across the globe, the U.S. State Department last week said “the people of North Korea faced egregious human rights violations by the government in nearly all reporting categories,” including “extrajudicial killings; disappearances; arbitrary arrests and detentions; torture; political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh, life-threatening, and included forced and compulsory labor.”
The North slammed that report late Tuesday for “viciously slandering” the nation, accusing the U.S. itself of being a “hotbed” for rights abuses itself, beset by “cancer-like” gun violence and “all sorts of injustice, deprivation of rights.”
Washington was appointing itself as a “human rights judge,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary.
Also Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a phone call that he will raise the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago at his historic summit with the North’s leader later this week.
During the call Moon said he intends to tell Kim that a “resolution of the abduction issue will help build peace in Northeast Asia,” the Presidential Blue House said.
The abduction issue is unlikely to be an official agenda item during the inter-Korean summit but will be touched on by the South Korean president during his conversation with Kim, a senior South Korean government official said.
Abe said that if both the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean summits succeed, Tokyo and Pyongyang could also start a dialogue, according to the Blue House.
The office also quoted Abe as saying that Japan could “put the past behind and normalize ties” based on a 2002 bilateral declaration, on the assumption that the North Korean nuclear, missile and abduction issues are settled.
Amid easing of tensions in the region in recent weeks, Trump has served up a markedly positive tone on the North Korean issue, touting his odds of successfully resolving the seemingly intractable nuclear issue, but has also, at times, tried to temper expectations.
“Maybe it will be wonderful and maybe it won’t,” he said. “And if it’s not going to be fair and reasonable and good, I will — unlike past administrations, I will leave the table.
“But I think we have a chance of doing something very special with respect to North Korea. Good for them, good for us, good for everybody,” Trump added.
Asked at a separate news conference what he meant when he said Kim had behaved openly and honorably, Trump pointed to the rapid pace of developments under his administration.
“I started a process, and when I did, everybody thought I was doing it absolutely wrong,” Trump said. “But in the meantime, for 25 years, people have been dealing and nothing happened. And a lot is happening right now.
“I think it’s going to be very positive. And I hope it’s going to be very positive for North Korea and for South Korea, and Japan, and the rest of the world,” he said.
“But I am starting at a level that, frankly, I shouldn’t have had to start.”
The U.S. has conducted a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the North to force it relinquish its nuclear weapons program. Trump has repeatedly claimed that this has been the primary reason for the North returning to the negotiating table, ostensibly to discuss “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
In a stunning announcement last week, Pyongyang announced that it had suspended nuclear and longer-range missile tests and shut down its main nuclear test site as the sanctions-hit country seeks to shift its focus to shoring up its economy.
But this may have less to do with Trump’s pressure campaign program than the isolated country’s progress in perfecting its nuclear arsenal.
In last week’s announcement, Kim said that the North’s quest for nuclear weapons was now “complete” and it “no longer needs” to test its weapons capabilities. This breakthrough, he said, had created a “climate of detente and peace” on the Korean Peninsula and the region.
“Dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape,” Kim said.
The White House has also faced questions over what exactly it hopes to secure from the North in what would be the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean supreme leader.
The U.S. acknowledged earlier this month that the North said it is ready to discuss the denuclearization issue, but experts and observers say it is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang would give up its “treasured sword” in the near-term even with significant inducements.
On Sunday, Trump delivered a dubious claim that the North has “agreed to denuclearization” ahead of the Kim meeting — an assertion at odds with what the White House has said previously. The North made no mention of relinquishing its nuclear arsenal in its weekend announcement.
Asked Tuesday what his definition of “complete denuclearization” meant, Trump said he was not seeking a superficial win.
“It means they get rid of their nukes,” he said. “Very simple. They get rid of their nukes, and nobody else would say it. It would be very easy for me to make a simple deal and claim victory. I don’t want to do that. I want them to get rid of their nukes.”
Trump’s remarks come just days ahead of Kim’s scheduled meeting with Moon at Freedom House on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Friday, when Kim will become the first North Korean leader to set foot on South Korean soil since at least the Korean War. That summit will be just the third ever between the leaders of the two Koreas.
Relations between the North and South, and even between Pyongyang and Washington, have seen a thaw after months of soaring tensions as Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States within striking distance.
Information from Kyodo added