CAMP DAVID, Maryland (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump said the US is open to engaging in discussions with South Korea and North Korea at “the appropriate time” and that he’d be willing to speak directly with Kim Jong Un if certain conditions were met.
“Right now they’re talking Olympics. It’s a start. It’s a big start,” Trump said at a press conference at Camp David about talks expected in the coming week between South Korea and North Korea. It would be “great for humanity” if something beyond cooperating in February’s Winter Olympic Games comes out of the talks, he said.
When asked whether he’d be open to talking to Kim, the North Korean leader, whom he’s dismissed in Twitter messages and in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly as “Rocket Man,” Trump said “Sure, I always believe in talking,” adding that “he knows I’m not messing around, not even a little bit.”
Trump praised the talks planned for this week after previously shunning such diplomatic efforts, and even publicly chiding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October for “wasting his time” by pursing them.
His comments on Saturday went further than his earlier endorsements, though, and Trump said the meeting wouldn’t have been possible without his tough rhetoric towards North Korea.
The remark also followed days after Trump warned on Twitter that his “nuclear button” is bigger and more powerful than Kim’s.
“These are constructive comments by the President,” Nicholas Burns, a former Undersecretary of State in President George W. Bush’s administration who’s now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said of Saturday’s press conference. “It is essential that we remain united with Seoul and not permit Kim Jong Un to divide us.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected in May, campaigned on greater engagement with North Korea after both hard-line and more accommodating approaches towards Pyongyang have failed over the years.
When Kim used his New Year’s address to offer direct talks with Seoul, Moon quickly accepted, underscoring the differences between the US and its long-time ally.
Previously the Trump administration has said that Kim must abandon or at least pause his nuclear weapons programme before talks would be considered.
Tillerson was right to say “that any talks with the North should have as their aim denuclearisation by the North,” Burns said of a CNN interview on Friday with the top US diplomat.
At Moon’s request, Trump delayed annual joint US-South Korean military exercises, long a source of consternation to the North, ahead of February’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, which is about 80km from the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas.
Moon assured Trump that his government would coordinate over talks between the two Koreas next week to discuss the possibility of Pyongyang sending a delegation to the Games.
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis told reporters on Jan 4 that the military drills were postponed to accommodate the Games, not as a condition of talks between Pyongyang and Seoul. The large annual military exercises with South Korea would resume some time after the Paralympic Games conclude on March 18, he said.
North Korea and South Korea remain technically at war, and more than 30,000 US troops are stationed in the country as a deterrent to conflict resuming. The latest detente could fail as quickly as earlier efforts.