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Trump plays down talk of war with North Korea, reiterates openness to talks

President Donald Trump speaks at a podium. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
January 12, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday played down the possibility of conflict with nuclear-armed North Korea and reiterated that Washington would be open to talks with Pyongyang “under the right circumstances,” as red-hot tensions appeared to cool.

Trump dismissed fears of war on the Korean Peninsula at a televised White House news conference with the leader of Norway, where the U.S. president was asked about remarks by U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller last month in which Neller predicted “a big-ass fight” and said “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.”

Trump said he did not expect such a scenario.

“We have certainly problems with North Korea,” Trump said. But “a lot of good talks are going on right now. A lot of good energy. I see a lot of good energy. I like it very much, what I’m seeing. … Hopefully a lot of good things are going to work out.”

Trump was referring to the first intra-Korean talks in over two years, which were held Tuesday. North Korea said at those talks that it would attend the Winter Olympics in the South, while both sides agreed to work to resolve problems between them via dialogue and to revive a military hotline and consultations to prevent accidental conflict.

In a statement, the White House said Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in had spoken over the phone and underscored the importance of continuing to apply “maximum pressure” on the North over its nuclear and missile programs, while the U.S. president also noted that an avenue was open for dialogue with Pyongyang.

“President Trump expressed his openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances,” the statement said.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House also said that the U.S. president had denied a recent Wall Street Journal story that the White House was considering limited military action against the North to “bloody Pyongyang’s nose” if it staged further provocations, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Yonhap, quoting Moon’s chief press secretary, Yoon Young-chan, also said that Trump had asked Moon to let North Korea understand that there will be no military action of any kind while the two Koreas continue to hold dialogue.

The Trump administration has repeatedly said that “all options remain on the table” — including military action — to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear drive.

The U.S. readout of the call did not include the denial or the promise of no military action while talks continue, but Trump later discussed his conversation with Moon at the White House.

“We had a very, very good conversation and we’ll see where it goes,” Trump told a Cabinet meeting. “Without our attitude it would have never happened.

“Who knows where it leads,” Trump added. “Hopefully, it will lead to success for the world — not just for our country, but for the world. And we’ll be seeing over the next number of weeks and months what happens.”

Still, analysts say the U.S. remains committed to cultivating an atmosphere of military pressure to accompany the economic and diplomatic measures against North Korea.

“For the moment, I don’t think that includes active strikes against the North — unless the North provokes first — but the Trump administration does not want to say publicly that such an option is ‘off the table’ for now,” said James Schoff, an East Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Trump, who has wrestled with the North Korean nuclear crisis — his biggest foreign policy challenge — since taking office in January last year, has credited himself with paving the way for the enhanced North-South engagement.

But the mercurial U.S. leader’s approach has also stoked fears of war on the peninsula, a conflict that experts say would have devastating effects for not only the region, but also the globe.

Using language hitherto unseen from an American president, he has variously vowed to “totally destroy” the North with “fire and fury” if it threatened the U.S. or its allies while also trading insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

On Saturday, however, Trump shifted gears, saying he would “absolutely” be open to talks over the phone with Kim — a reversal from recent comments chiding his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for “wasting his time” by pursuing dialogue with Pyongyang.

The North Korean leader, for his part, has ramped up his threats to the U.S. and its allies in both words and deeds, including successful tests of what the country claimed was a powerful hydrogen bomb and the separate test of an intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of striking the American mainland.

Kim has vowed never to give up his country’s nuclear weapons, regarding them as his last line of defense against any U.S. attempt to kill him and topple his regime.

The South broached the nuclear issue Tuesday at the closing of its talks with the North, prompting an angry reaction from Pyongyang’s chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, according to reports.

“All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles, are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia,” Ri was quoted as saying.

“This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today’s good achievement into nothing,” he added.

Indicating the tough road ahead, the Rodong Sinmun, the North’s ruling party newspaper further blasted the U.S. in a commentary Wednesday.

Washington, it said, “would be well advised to rack its brain for seeking out a way for coexistence with the DPRK, a nuclear weapons state both in name and reality, instead of precipitating its ruin with its bluffing and reckless and foolish acts,” it said.

Still, while the prospects of finding a path that ultimately leads to the North’s denuclearization remain uncertain, Seoul — and, increasingly, Washington — appear to be cautiously optimistic for now.

“So far I think this is good alliance management,” said Carnegie’s Schoff, who also served as senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“The U.S. is trying to be supportive of Moon’s initiative, even though they don’t think it will go very far and could ease up the atmosphere of pressure on the North, while South Korea is trying to reassure people that it remains committed to a ‘maximum pressure’ policy, even as they seem willing to err on the side of generosity in these initial talks with the North.”

While the underlying differences of the U.S. approach and priorities remain, Schoff said Washington is “papering over it somewhat effectively for the time being,” as it waits to “see what North Korea is up to.”


© 2018 the Japan Times (Tokyo)

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