WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump opened on Thursday the door to “smaller deals” with North Korea that do not necessarily have anything to do with denuclearization, but he remained firm on his refusal to make economic concessions to Pyongyang amid the concerns South Korea has about the bilateral dialogue.
Trump welcomed South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the White House and expressed optimism about the process of easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula despite the failure of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in late February.
“A third summit could happen,” said Trump, regarding another meeting with Kim, adding “It’s not a fast process. I’ve never said it would be. It’s step by step.
Trump also did not rule out a trilateral meeting with the two Korean leaders and himself.
Moon traveled to Washington with the aim of pushing forward the stalled process of relaxing tensions with North Korea and, according to press reports, he wanted to convince Trump to be open to a gradual lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang to allow, at least, the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation projects.
Trump, however, seemed to close the door to that possibility in his remarks to reporters in the Oval Office when he said that “at the right time, I would have great support” for lifting sanctions, but adding: “This isn’t the right time.”
Specifically, South Korea would like the US to push for exemptions in the United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang’s weapons testing with the aim of reopening the Kumgang hotel complex and the Kaesong industrial complex, both located in North Korean territory and closed since 2008 and 2016, respectively.
Trump also appeared to be firm in his stance that Washington will keep its sanctions on North Korea in place until the denuclearization process concludes.
“We want sanctions to remain in place. ... I had the option of significantly increasing them. I didn’t want to do that because of my relationship with Kim Jong Un,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question.
“I think that sanctions are, right now, at a level that’s a fair level. And I really believe something very significant is going to happen. We could always increase them, but I didn’t want to do that at this time,” he added.
However, Trump did indicate that he could consider certain measures that would be designed to build confidence and foster dialogue, although he did not specify what those measures are.
“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You can work out, step by step, pieces. But, at this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of (North Korea’s) nuclear weapons,” he said.
Trump also said that he would speak with Moon about possible “humanitarian” gestures toward North Korea, recalling that Seoul had taken measures to “help out with food” and certain other measures.
During the press conference, Trump praised Kim, saying that he enjoys being with him, and the North Korean leader this week avoided directly criticizing Washington during an appearance before the Central Committee of the North Korean workers party, calling instead for guaranteeing the “self-sufficiency” of North Korea in the face of foreign sanctions.
Although both the US and North Korean leaders appear to be willing to go through a lengthy negotiation process, if necessary, contact between the two governments has been minimal since the failed Vietnam summit and the US has not received a response to its offer to resume negotiations at the working team level, according to The Washington Post.
Amid this climate of uncertainty, Moon – who last year became the driving force behind the process to relax tensions – on Thursday at the joint White House press conference tried to transmit optimism, saying that “I believe that the Hanoi Summit ... was not a source of disappointment, but ... is actually the part of a bigger process that will lead us to a bigger agreement.”
“The important task that I face right now is to maintain the momentum of dialogue and also express the positive outlook, regarding the third US-North Korea Summit, to the international community, that this will be held in the near future.”