Trump Softens Tone on North Korea, Urges Deal on Nuclear Weapons

Updated on
  • President speaks at news conference with South Korea’s Moon
  • Moon says leaders reaffirmed push for sanctions and pressure
President Donald Trump speaks about the threat of North Korea during his trip to Asia.

President Donald Trump toned down his harsh rhetoric toward North Korea during a visit to Seoul, telling reporters the Pyongyang regime should “come to the table” to make a deal and refusing to rule out direct talks.

Trump toasts Moon Jae-In during a state dinner in Seoul on Nov. 7.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s remarks were a far cry from his comments in recent months, when he promised “fire and fury” against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and suggested negotiations with Pyongyang were a waste of time. With his remarks, Trump went further than he has before, amid the recent tensions, in saying he was open to engaging with Kim’s regime.

“I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that’s good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world,” Trump said at a briefing alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “I do see certain movement, yes, but let’s see what happens.”

Pyongyang’s accelerated missile and nuclear weapons program -- and a war of words between Trump and Kim -- have jangled nerves in Asia and the U.S. and ratcheted up tensions to the highest level in decades. Nowhere is that anxiety felt more acutely than in Seoul, with a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people and a location in striking range of the regime’s hundreds of artillery guns.

"Talks and some kind of deal are the only way out of this," said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "What really needs to happen now is quiet conversation between American and North Korean officials. For the Americans to be able to talk with any credibility the North Koreans need to know” Trump is on board.

Read more: What Trump, U.S. Allies Can Do About North Korea

It wasn’t immediately clear how far Trump was willing to go on the notion of making a deal with the North Koreans at this time. Also, the long-held U.S. position is that no direct talks can occur until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons. North Korea has said it won’t negotiate away its nuclear weapons unless the U.S. drops its hostile policy toward the nation and offers security guarantees.

Even as he spoke of negotiations, Trump also reminded North Korea that the U.S. had three aircraft carriers in position along with a nuclear submarine.

“We have many things happening that we hope, we hope -- in fact I’ll go a step further, we hope to God -- we never have to use,” he said.

Moon said the two countries had agreed to lift the limit on payloads on South Korean missiles and expand rotational deployment of strategic assets. They also plan to start talks over selling high-end military surveillance assets to South Korea, he said.

“Trump and I have reaffirmed our existing strategy of pushing for sanctions and pressure until North Korea gives up its nuclear talks and comes to the path of dialogue,” he said.

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A senior South Korean government official told reporters in a background briefing that South Korea is considering the purchase of nuclear-powered submarines. The official, who asked not to be identified to discuss the talks, said the two leaders hadn’t spoken “a single word” about revising South Korea’s free-trade agreement with the U.S.

Trump previously has complained the trade pact was unfair to the U.S. More recently, however, he has said any renegotiation can wait as the two nations work together to solve the North Korea problem.

Trump’s comments appear likely to sow further confusion about the U.S. stance toward North Korea. In early October, he tweeted that he had told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” his derisive name for Kim. In a follow-on tweet, he said, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

And on Oct. 2, Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “now is not the time to talk” and the U.S. only wants to talk with North Korea over freeing three U.S. citizens held by the regime.

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“It’s a good sign that Trump ‘behaved’ and refrained from provocative language about North Korea and offensive language about South Korea,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul. “The two presidents said all the right things and their diplomatic display ended without any gaffes and hiccups.”

The U.S. president has been pressing China to put maximum pressure on North Korea, while the U.S. approach also includes urging the governments in Seoul and Tokyo to set aside decades of mistrust and work together. American official are also calling on countries around the world to expel North Korean diplomats and send North Korean guest workers home.

Trump, who is heading to Beijing on Wednesday for a state visit, said China had been “very very helpful” on North Korea, and that getting countries such as Russia on board would help things happen quickly.

“All nations must implement UN Security Council regulations and cease trade and business entirely with North Korea,” Trump said. “It is unacceptable that nations would help to arm and finance this increasingly dangerous regime.”

North Korea last month accused the U.S. of “seeking to ignite a nuclear war” and said American fighter jets were simulating a surprise nuclear attack on Kim’s regime with a drill in South Korea.

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In a briefing on Tillerson’s plane on the way to Asia, a senior State Department official said there was evidence the U.S. pressure campaign was working. The official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said a recent article in North Korea’s state news agency that the sanctions were tantamount to genocide was an indication that Pyongyang was feeling the bite of the restrictions.

The official also said, however, that there was no indication North Korea was currently willing to come to the negotiating table, and said there was little to discuss as long as Kim’s regime remains committed to developing a nuclear weapon.

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said it’s in Trump’s interest to show that, in effect, he’s done everything he could to avoid a conflict, including talking to the North Koreans.

“If the Americans are making the overtures to the North Koreans -- ‘look we are prepared to talk’ -- and the North Koreans throw it back in their face, the responsibility for what happens next is North Korea’s, it is not America’s," Davis said. 

“From the American perspective for diplomacy to work, North Korea has to denuclearize. North Korea is not prepared to denuclearize. That’s their opening position," he said. "So you’ve got irreconcilable positions.”

— With assistance by David Tweed, Nick Wadhams, Shinhye Kang, and Justin Sink

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