SEOUL, South Korea - Softening his aggressive rhetoric, at least for the moment, President Donald Trump stood on South Korean soil Tuesday and urged North Korea to come to the negotiating table. It's time, he said, for the North to “make a deal” to rein in its nuclear weapons program.
It was a striking shift in tone for the president, who for months has issued increasingly dire threats to answer any hostile North Korean action with “fire and fury.” On Tuesday, his first day on the Korean Peninsula as president, Trump said he'd seen “a lot of progress” in dealing with Pyongyang, though he stopped short of saying whether he wanted direct diplomatic talks.
“It makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and make a deal that is good for the people of North Korea and for the world,” Trump said at a news conference with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. “I do see certain movement.”
Trump was winding down his visit to Seoul on Wednesday with an address to South Korea's National Assembly, where he was expected to outline his view of dangers posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The next stop on his five-nation Asian tour: Beijing, where he will press China to constrict the North's economic lifeblood.
Ever the showman, Trump teased that he had a surprise in store for Wednesday, saying at a Tuesday evening banquet that he had an “exciting day” planned - “for many reasons that people will find out.” He did not elaborate.
Overall, the president sounded an optimistic note on disagreements with the North, saying confidently, if vaguely: “Ultimately, it'll all work out.” Whether the shift in rhetoric signaled a change in policy or diplomatic strategy remained uncertain.
Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director in Washington for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it could simply be Trump projecting “what he most recently heard” from Moon and Japan's Shinzo Abe.
“I expect he heard from both Prime Minister Abe and President Moon the need to give diplomacy a chance,” Fitzpatrick said. “Of course, it's not the first time he has talked about engaging with North Korea. The issue has been one of timing. Now is a good time, during a pause in missile testing.”
North Korea has fired off more than a dozen missiles this year but none in nearly two months. But analysts caution against reading too much into the pause.
There's no public sign of any diplomatic progress between Washington and Pyongyang. U.S. officials say the back channel between the State Department and the North Korean mission at the United Nations in New York remains intact, but contacts have not been substantive other than achieving the release of American college student Otto Warmbier in June. He died days after his repatriation to the U.S.
Still, Trump's conciliatory comments would be welcome in South Korea, where both the government and the wider population have been unnerved by the president's threats against the North.
Trump did note the United States’ military options, mentioning that three aircraft carrier groups and a nuclear submarine had been deployed to the region. But he said “we hope to God we never have to use” the arsenal. And he accused North Korea's Kim Jong Un of “threatening millions and millions of lives, so needlessly.”
Moon, who has been eager to solidify a friendship with Trump, said he hoped the president's visit would be a turning point in the standoff with North Korea.
The president began his day with a visit to Camp Humphreys, a joint US-Korean military base where he shook hands with American and Korean service members and ate lunch with troops in a large mess hall. The visit was intended to underscore the countries’ ties and South Korea's commitment to contributing to its own defense.
When he leaves South Korea, Trump flies to Beijing for what the White House sees as the centerpiece of his five-nation Asia trip.
China is North Korea's largest trade partner, and Trump is expected to press its leaders to curtail their dealings with Pyongyang and to expel North Korean workers from its borders. Trump has praised China for adopting tough United Nations sanctions against North Korea but has urged it to do more.
“I want to just say that President Xi - where we will be tomorrow, China - has been very helpful. We'll find out how helpful soon,” Trump said. “But he really has been very, very helpful. So China is out trying very hard to solve the problem with North Korea.”
Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Wednesday will meet and have dinner with Xi Jinping and his wife and receive a private tour of The Forbidden City, Beijing's ancient imperial palace. White House officials point to the leaders’ successful summit in Florida this spring, an event in part defined by Trump telling his Chinese counterpart about the missile strike he had ordered on Syria while the two men enjoyed chocolate cake. But experts in the region suggest that Xi will have the advantage over Trump.
“Trump keeps portraying his relationship with XI as great pals but that's wildly naive,” said Mike Chinoy, a non-resident senior fellow at the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California. “The Chinese have figured out how to play Trump: flatter him. And there's nothing the Chinese do better than wow foreign diplomats.”