President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he believes US-led international efforts to crank up the pressure on North Korea and his at-times menacing rhetoric are beginning to work.
But he has declined to reprise his inflammatory words of the past — invoking neither “fire and fury” or “rocket man” — so far during his time in the South Korean capital.
The US President did not offer any specific signs of progress, noting that his administration likes “to play our cards a little bit close to the vest.” But alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a joint news conference, Trump said he believes the US-led coalition is “making a lot of progress.”
“Yes, I think we’re making a lot of progress. Yes, we’re showing great strength. I think they understand we have unparalleled strength. There has never been strength like it,” Trump said. “I do see certain movement, yes.”
The comments marked the first time Trump has signaled US efforts to counter the North Korean threat are yielding positive results. And while he did not signal the military option had left the table, Trump on Tuesday leaned more heavily into his hopes for a diplomatic solution rather than the issuance of threats of military action.
‘Movement’ on North Korea
Trump credited his previous bellicose rhetoric and US military strength in the region for the “movement” he says he is seeing, but went a step further Tuesday to distance himself from any desire to resolve the North Korean threat through military means.
“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,” Trump said.
Trump added that he hopes North Korea will “come to the table,” though he declined to say whether he would be open to direct talks.
The comments came on the third day of his swing through Asia that took him to Seoul on Tuesday after first stopping in Japan, both visits aimed in part at shoring up key US allies in the face of North Korea’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Trump again stressed the urgency of curbing North Korea’s advances on Tuesday, saying “it’s time to act with urgency and with great determination.”
And speaking on the eve of his first visit to China, Trump called specifically on the North Korean neighbor as well as Russia to “demand an end to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“North Korea is a worldwide threat that requires worldwide action,” he said.
Trump left no doubt that the United States would use military force if necessary to protect itself and allies in Asia from North Korean threats.
“The United States stands prepared to defend itself and its allies using the full range of our unmatched military capabilities if need be,” Trump said.
Moon said earlier that he and Trump carried out “candid” talks about the North Korean issue, and agreed to scale up regional deployments of allies military forces. Moon said the US and South Korea must “maintain strong stance toward North Korea’s threats.”
Balancing trade and North Korea threat
The joint news conference came as tensions flare over the quickening pace of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Trump’s visit here marks a critical moment in the US-South Korea alliance — and a test. Trump has sought to push a more aggressive approach to the North Korean threat, whereas Moon rose to power on a platform of increased dialogue with Pyongyang.
Trump has also been fiercely critical of KORUS, the free-trade agreement between the US and South Korea, suggesting earlier this year he might terminate it, and Trump said Tuesday the two had discussed making changes to the agreement — though he tempered his rhetoric on the issue during the joint appearance.
Trump kicked off his visit here with a stop at Camp Humphreys, a joint US-South Korean base, where he sat down for lunch with troops from both countries creating a photo opportunity drawing attention to the critical military alliance. Nearly 30,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea.
A small number of anti-Trump protests gathered at different locations around the city Tuesday to mark his visit. Some opposed the deployment of the US missile defense system, THAAD, in the country to guard against missiles from North Korea. Others held placards saying “no Trump, no war.” A candlelight vigil was scheduled for Tuesday evening in Gwanghwamun Square, followed by a march to the Blue House.
Trump is not expected to visit the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas during his two-day visit here, making him only the second US president since Ronald Reagan not to visit the DMZ.
A senior White House official said the administration opted for the visit to Camp Humphreys to highlight the military burden-sharing between the two countries and because visits to the DMZ have become a bit “cliché.”
Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have all visit the DMZ this year in separate visits.