US President Donald Trump and South Korea‘s Moon Jae-in agreed on Thursday on the importance of nuclear talks with North Korea, but the two leaders aren’t completely aligned on whether sanctions would pressure Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons or drive him away from the negotiating table.
Trump, in his first meeting with Moon since the unsuccessful US summit with Kim in Hanoi, said the United States wanted to keep economic sanctions in place to pressure Kim to denuclearise. But Trump said he retained good relations with Kim and didn’t rule out a third summit or taking steps to ease food or other shortages in the repressive nation.
“We want sanctions to remain in place,” Trump said at the White House. “I think that sanctions right now are at a level that’s a fair level.”
Moon, for his part, has called for an easing of sanctions, including those holding back joint economic projects between North and South Korea. But he didn’t speak about the sanctions issue as he and Trump spoke with reporters at the start of their talks.
Moon’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon said on Friday that sanctions were necessary to deter North Korea from “making bad decisions” but could not solve all unresolved problems.
Trump said he would favour easing those sanctions at the right time but added, “This isn’t the right time.” He said he was open to discussing smaller steps, such as helping to ease North Korea’s humanitarian problems, but that, in general, the US wanted sanctions to remain.
“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen,” Trump said.
“You could 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 the nuclear weapons.”
Negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme appear to be stalled, and there is uncertainty over whether Kim is considering backing out of talks or restarting nuclear and missile tests. The Korean Central News Agency on Thursday said that at a party meeting on Wednesday, Kim stressed “self-reliance” in his country to “deal a telling blow to the hostile forces” that “go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring” North Korea “to its knees”.
Trump and Moon discussed the possibility of the South Korean leader having an inter-Korean summit with Kim soon as a way to boost dialogue between the US and North Korea on denuclearisation.
Kim and Moon met three times last year and Kim promised to visit South Korea in return for the South Korean leader’s visit to Pyongyang in September.
A South Korean statement issued after the meeting, which included a working lunch, said Moon told Trump he would push to hold another summit soon with Kim.
“The two presidents agreed that the top-down approach will continue to be indispensable in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, President Trump stressed that the door was always open for dialogue with Chairman Kim,” the statement said.
A South Korean official said nothing had been decided about the timing and location of a next inter-Korean summit.
Moon told Trump he would contact the North in earnest to talk about holding an inter-Korean summit soon, the official said. Trump asked Moon to brief him as early as possible on North Korea’s latest thinking.
Before his trip, aides to Moon stressed the need to revive US-North Korea talks. Moon has put his political reputation on the line in encouraging the negotiations.
Trump expressed a willingness to hold a third summit with Kim, but said it wasn’t a “fast process”.
Trump and Kim have met twice, in Hanoi in February and Singapore last June, building goodwill but failing to agree on a deal to lift sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes.
“It could happen. A third summit could happen. And it’s step by step. It’s not a fast process. I’ve never said it would be. It’s step by step,” Trump said.
Moon said he did not view the summit that collapsed in Hanoi as a failure, but part of a longer “process”. He said he agreed with Trump on the “ultimate goal” of total denuclearisation by North Korea.
“The important task that we 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,” Moon said.
In a statement following the meeting, the White House said Trump reiterated to Moon that he had a good relationship with Kim and “noted the door remains open to dialogue”.
Although Trump didn’t rule out a third summit, Victor Cha, a North Korea expert, wasn’t hopeful.
With Trump already campaigning for re-election, Cha said, “It’s hard for me to think Trump will risk a third summit.”
Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests which have been in place since 2017 unless Washington made concessions such as easing sanctions.
On Wednesday, North Korea’s state media said Kim had chaired a Politburo meeting on Tuesday to discuss ways to make progress under the “prevailing tense situation”.
North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said last month that Kim would soon make clear his post-Hanoi position. She said her country might pull out of the nuclear negotiations with the US, citing a lack of corresponding steps to some disarmament measures that North Korea took last year. She also hinted that Kim was considering whether to continue the talks and his moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.