WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart held talks on Thursday (US time) on how to halt North Korea’s nuclear drive, but remained at odds over whether to isolate or engage the Pyongyang regime.
Mr Trump welcomed the newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae In to the White House for a formal dinner that preceded the heavier lifting that was to come later in the evening during talks on what to do about their ongoing standoff with the North.
“We’re going to have tremendous discussions tonight,” Mr Trump said at the dinner, flanked by his wife Melania and by Mr Moon, on his right.
Seated next to Moon at the elegant, flower bedecked table was his wife, First Lady Kim Jung Sook. Members of Trump’s cabinet and Korean delegation were also seated at the elegant dinner table, which ran the length of the room.
“I know you’ve been discussing with our people some of the complexities of North Korea and trade and other things, and we’ll be discussing them all as we progress – and it could be very well late into the evening,” Mr Trump said.
Earlier on Thursday, President Moon lobbied US leaders to back his policy of engagement with North Korea, as the Trump administration vowed to increase pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear programme.
The Trump administration has been trying to isolate the North Korean regime following a series of missile tests, including by persuading China – Pyongyang’s main diplomatic ally – to help bring Kim Jong Un into line. The US on Thursday imposed sanctions on two Chinese citizens and a shipping company for helping North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes and accused a Chinese bank of laundering money for Pyongyang.
The Trump administration also announced it plans to sell Taiwan about US$1.42 billion in arms.
Speaking on board his flight to the United States on Wednesday, Mr Moon said Seoul and Washington should offer concessions to Pyongyang if it complies with their demands, according to multiple South Korean reports.
“Without rewarding North Korea for its bad actions, South Korea and the United States should closely consult what they may give the North in return for a nuclear freeze,” he said.
“A nuclear freeze is a gate to dialogue and the exit of the dialogue is a complete nuclear dismantlement,” he added.
The visit is the first since Mr Moon’s resounding election victory just a few weeks ago. The day commenced on Thursday with Mr Moon being received by congressional leaders. Mr Moon met House Speaker Paul Ryan and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi in an ornate room in the US Capitol, with Mr Ryan hailing “strong” bilateral ties but only briefly addressing security issues on the Korean peninsula before reporters were ushered out.
“We have shared concerns such as the threats posed to both of our nations from North Korea,” Mr Ryan told Mr Moon.
The South Korean president responded by saying that when it comes to humanitarian issues, “we must cross boundaries and all party lines and all try to unite together as one.”
Mr Moon also met US senators including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker. Mr Trump and Mr Moon were to continue their talks – likely again dominated by North Korea – at the White House on Friday.
Washington, South Korea’s security guarantor, has more than 28,000 troops in the country to defend it from its communist neighbour, which has been intensifying missile tests – including five since Mr Moon’s inauguration.
Pyongyang is seeking to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that could reach the continental United States.
Mr Trump has been pushing for tougher sanctions against Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions and his administration has said military action was a possibility.
Washington and Seoul “share precisely the same goal, which is the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” a senior US administration official said.
“That is the hard challenge that we have been wrestling with for a couple of decades now.”
Trump seeks to heap economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang “in order to change their calculus,” the official said.
“Right now we see no evidence that they are seeking to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons or ballistic missile technology.”
Also expected to be high on the agenda is a controversial US missile defense system that has been installed in South Korea to guard against missile threats from the North. Though parts of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system are already in place, Mr Moon suspended further deployment following a furious campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic protests by Beijing.
President Trump is also expected to press his counterpart on trade differences over cars and steel in their meetings.
Trump has spoken harshly about US trade imbalances with South Korea and threatened to tear up a trade agreement with the country.
"I think they'll have a friendly and frank discussion about the trade relationship," a White House official told reporters on Wednesday, noting concerns about barriers to US auto sales and surplus Chinese steel that arrives in the US via South Korea.
The US goods trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since the KORUS pact took effect in 2012, from US$13.2 billion (S$18.2 billion) in 2011 to US$27.7 billion in 2016. It was forecast to boost US exports by US$10 billion a year but they were US$3 billion lower in 2016 than in 2011.
In an interview with Reuters in April, Mr Trump called the five-year-old trade deal "horrible" and said he would either renegotiate or terminate it.
During remarks at the US Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Moon said unfair trade practices would be eradicated and factors that limited competition, such as market entry barriers and price regulations, would be re-evaluated under his administration.
Mr Trump has made challenging trade agreements a hallmark of his administration since taking office in January.