Trump tones down rhetoric, insists North Korea remains a worldwide threat
US president says international action is needed to subdue North Korea but claims progress is being made to rein in the rogue state
Seoul — North Korea poses a worldwide threat that needs worldwide action, President Donald Trump said in Seoul on Tuesday, but he insisted that “we are making a lot of progress” in reining in the rogue state.
The US leader, standing alongside his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, reiterated he was prepared to use the full range of US military might to halt Pyongyang’s march towards becoming a fully-fledged nuclear power.
“It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table to make a deal that is good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world,” he said.
Trump’s tone in Seoul, whose 10-million inhabitants would find themselves on the front line of any conflict, was in marked contrast to previous rhetoric. On Monday, he had declared in Tokyo on the first leg of his Asia tour that the time was over for “strategic patience” with Pyongyang, which in September carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date.
Trump has traded personal insults and threats of war with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, raising fears of possible US military action.
But in the South Korean capital, just 56km south of the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula, Trump was reassuring. “Ultimately, it will all work out. It always works out. It has to work out.”
North Korea was “a worldwide threat”, but the president said: “I think we are making a lot of progress.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping — who he has often described as holding the key to disarming the North — has been “very, very helpful”, he said, expressing hopes that Russia would be similarly co-operative.
Trump goes to China on Wednesday after addressing the South Korean parliament. “We are going to have an exciting day tomorrow for many reasons that people will find out,” he said at a state dinner on Tuesday night, without elaborating.
Trump arrived from Japan, where he secured Tokyo’s full support for Washington’s stance that “all options are on the table” regarding Pyongyang and declared its nuclear ambitions “a threat to the civilised world and global peace and stability”.
He enjoyed three days of near-bromance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling him “wonderful” after a round of golf and describing US-Japan ties as “really extraordinary”.
After a relaxed few days in Tokyo, Seoul is a more complicated stop for the mercurial US president. Trump’s relationship with the liberal-leaning Moon has been cool and the former real estate magnate has railed at South Korean moves to engage its neighbour — something he has previously labelled “appeasement”.
But the president described Moon as a “fine gentleman” in a tweet early on Tuesday.
“The partnership between our two nations and our two people is deep and enduring,” Trump added at the dinner.
And Moon — whose parents were evacuated from the North on a US ship during the Korean War — was full of praise for the US at Camp Humphreys, where US forces stationed in the country — 28,500 in total — have moved their headquarters from downtown Seoul.
“They say one knows a true friend when one is in need,” he told Trump.
“The US is a true friend who has been with us and has bled with us in our time of need.”
South Korea is rolling out the red carpet for Trump as it seeks assurances about the alliance and US resolve.
At the dinner, Moon mentioned the first anniversary on Wednesday of Trump’s election victory and said that after a day in his company, he felt “as if they were old friends”.
But while Trump has threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury”, Moon is mindful that much of Seoul is within range of the North’s artillery.
In an address to parliament last week, the South Korean leader said: “There should be no military action on the peninsula without our prior consent.”
Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, told AFP the two allies have “subtle differences in their positions” and underlying suspicions about each other.
Citizens’ views are mixed, with both pro-and anti-Trump demonstrations in downtown Seoul since the weekend. A heavy police presence lined the route of his motorcade.
North Korea itself welcomed the US president to the peninsula with a rhetorical volley via the governing party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, calling the US a “thrice-cursed nuclear criminal” and condemning “Trump’s mad remarks”.
Commerce was also on Trump’s agenda in Seoul and he demanded a “free, fair and reciprocal” trade deal with his security ally, calling their existing agreement “quite unsuccessful and not very good for the US”. His administration has caused consternation in Seoul by demanding the renegotiation of the five-year-old US-Korea free trade agreement, which Trump has called a “horrible deal” and a “job killer”.
Trump’s visit will not include a trip to the demilitarised zone.
Some observers have fretted that a gaffe by a president given to off-the-cuff remarks could send tensions rising on the Korean peninsula.
“If Trump says anything that can provoke North Korea, it could send military tensions soaring again,” said Prof Koo Kab-Woo from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.