President Trump Focuses on North Korea During Asia Trip

Offers olive branch while in South Korea.

President Trump offered the North Korean regime an olive branch while in Seoul, South Korea on Tuesday. He asked the North Koreans to “come to the table” and “make a deal” during a news conference he held along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. President Trump added that “I do see certain movement” and “a lot of progress” in dealing with North Korea, but did not provide any details. At an evening banquet, President Trump spoke of an “exciting day tomorrow for many reasons that people will find out.” On Wednesday, the president is scheduled to deliver a major speech to South Korea’s National Assembly, which is expected to deal with North Korea. 

President Trump’s diplomatic tone in Seoul so far has contrasted sharply with his public criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the sarcastic label the president has conferred on the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. President Trump may have been trying to lower the rhetorical temperature for the benefit of his South Korean host, who has stressed a preference for a diplomatic solution rather than a military end game that could result in a catastrophic loss of South Korean lives. During his stay in Japan before arriving in South Korea, President Trump had defended his use of tough rhetoric. He said then that his "rhetoric is very strong, but look what's happened with weak rhetoric over the last 25 years."

While alluding to the availability of military options and the deployment of three aircraft carrier groups and a nuclear submarine in the area, President Trump issued no fiery threats during his public appearances in Seoul on Tuesday. He said instead at his news conference with President Moon Jae-in that “we hope to God we never have to use” the military resources. This represents a marked reversal from the president’s warning at the United Nations General Assembly last September that North Korea could face total destruction if it threatened the United States or its allies. At the same time, however, President Trump made clear he was serious about preserving a credible military option by sending a request to Congress on Monday for $4 billion to support “additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners.”

Linking security with a more beneficial trading relationship for the United States, as he had done during his visit to Japan, President Trump discussed with President Moon Jae-in how to beef up South Korea’s defense capabilities. One way, of course, would be for South Korea to acquire more advanced weapons systems from the United States.  President Trump noted that the U.S. makes "the greatest military equipment in the world." He said that South Korea had agreed to order "billions of dollars’ worth of equipment, which is good for them." South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed, saying the purchases were "very much needed for us to beef up our military."

President Trump’s next stop after South Korea is China, the most important one of his Asia trip. He is intent on reinforcing his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which began to take shape during President Xi’s visit to President Trump’s Florida estate last April. The Chinese are planning what they have called “a state visit-plus” for the U.S. president, with much pomp and ceremony at the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City where China’s emperors once ruled. Each leader will have his own agenda to push forward with the other during their private talks.

President Trump can be expected to focus on North Korea, thanking the Chinese for what they have done so far to put economic pressure on the regime while asking them to do even more. “President Xi … has been very helpful. We'll find out how helpful soon,” President Trump said during his Tuesday news conference in Seoul. Trade is likely to be another issue high on President Trump’s priority list.

President Xi, more powerful than ever as China’s undisputed leader after his elevation by the Communist Party Congress to a level on par with Mao Tse-tung, is seeking to project his vision of China as a preeminent global power. He wants the Trump administration to view China as an indispensable strategic partner on issues where their interests intersect. North Korea represents one opportunity for cooperation, up to a point. China may be willing to do more to put pressure on North Korea, for a price, so long as it does not lead to a collapse of the North Korean regime or the prospect of a re-unified Korean Peninsula that leans towards the United States.

According to a New York Times report from Beijing in advance of President Trump’s arrival there, “many analysts believe Mr. Xi will use the potential for greater Chinese pressure on North Korea to draw Mr. Trump closer to embracing a ‘great power’ relationship.” This would call for treating China as a superpower with which the United States endeavors to forge a tighter strategic relationship in areas of mutual common interest, despite China’s human rights record, its serious trade imbalance and economic rivalry with the United States, and its military maneuvers in the South China Sea. President Trump may be willing to consider pursuing such a relationship, despite its risks, if he thinks that doing so would significantly help in effectively defusing the potentially existential nuclear threat posed by North Korea.