Donald Trump said on Monday he would be “honoured” to meet Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, despite soaring tensions between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
The US president’s comments contrast with his earlier hardline stance on the reclusive Asian nation — as well as Friday’s call from Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, for the UN to impose “painful sanctions” on North Korea to deter its nuclear programme. A weekend ballistic missile test prompted Mr Trump to declare that Pyongyang had “disrespected” Beijing.
North Korea has quickly become Mr Trump’s most pressing foreign policy issue. Former President Barack Obama, who also said during his 2008 election campaign that he would be prepared to meet Mr Kim, warned Mr Trump of the North Korean threat during their handover talks.
Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang — which have no diplomatic relations — are regularly heightened at this time of year as North Korea celebrates several patriotic anniversaries and the US conducts military exercises in the area. In recent weeks, however, the simmering animosity has threatened to escalate into conflict.
On Tuesday US forces in South Korea put into operation a controversial missile shield that has irked both Pyongyang and Beijing, and now threatens to undermine the US alliance with Seoul.
Mr Trump sparked an unusual backlash in the South Korean capital last week when he said he would demand $1bn from Seoul for the deployment, which is widely believed to enhance US strategic interests in the region.
Concerns about the US president in South Korea were already high after Mr Trump earlier raised the prospect of unilateral military strikes on North Korea, telling the Financial Times that if China will not intervene to stem its neighbour’s nuclear ambitions then “we will”.
Pyongyang has accused the US of “intimidation and blackmail”. Western experts believe North Korea is rapidly developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that may one day be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as the US.
Observers on Monday struggled to determine whether Mr Trump’s comments were a throwaway remark, a serious attempt to defuse dangerous tensions or something in between.
The US president has often delighted in making overtures to strongman rulers, whether extending friendship to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, inviting Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte to visit or, during his campaign last year, saying he would like to eat “a hamburger” with North Korea’s supreme leader.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it,” Mr Trump told Bloomberg on Monday. “Most political people would never say that but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him.” Mr Trump described Mr Kim as “a pretty smart cookie” to CBS the previous day.
Mr Trump did not stipulate his conditions but since taking charge in 2011, Mr Kim has neither met a foreign leader nor left his country. Mr Trump would be unlikely to visit North Korea and has previously said he would invite Mr Kim to the US, though not for a state dinner.
Jenny Town, North Korea programme manager at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that while North Korea “tends to be better behaved when in a negotiation versus when they’re not”, Mr Trump’s offer was unlikely to reduce tensions.
“I don’t even think it was a productive approach,” she said, arguing for greater consistency from the US administration. “In the usual call-and-response [in US-North Korea relations] this year, the x factor has been Trump rhetoric feeding in and being more threatening.”
The prospect of a meeting also stoked concern among human rights groups, which say it would only legitimise a regime that relies on abuses including public executions, starvation and labour camps for its control. “It’s a ‘fool’s errand’,” said Sarah Margon, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington.
“A meeting itself is leverage and a tool to influence actions by the North Koreans,” Ms Margon said. “He [Mr Trump] would have to take the meeting as part of a larger strategy not just on proliferation issues but on human rights. You can’t really talk about one without the other.”
The US and its allies have tried a range of diplomatic overtures and threats to stem North Korea’s nuclear development in recent years, veering from multilateral talks and food aid to direct threats and punitive sanctions.
Yet North Korea has continued to carry out nuclear tests and develop long-range missiles. White House spokesman Sean Spicer attempted to damp expectations of a new diplomatic push when he said later on Monday that “conditions are not there right now”.
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