Since Ronald Reagan, every American president except George H.W. Bush has visited the DMZ, the heavily guarded strip of land that has divided North and South Korea for 64 years. The Trump administration had been divided over whether to send Trump to the DMZ amid concerns from the Moon administration and the State Department that such a visit could further inflame tensions with Pyongyang.
The White House official said that Trump's personal security was not a concern in weighing a DMZ trip but that there is not enough time for the president to visit both Camp Humphreys and the outpost along the border.
Asked if the White House was concerned whether avoiding the DMZ would compromise Trump's message to Pyongyang, the senior administration official said: “Not really.... The message is that we are guests during a state visit of President Moon Jae-in. He invited us to make the visit to Camp Humphreys.... I don't think this sends a message in a negative way.”
The official, who was not authorized by the White House to speak on the record, made his remarks while providing an overview of Trump's Nov. 3-14 trip to five Asian nations, with a stop in Hawaii. The president will visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in what will be his longest foreign trip to date.
The White House official confirmed that Trump will have bilateral meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Moon, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. While in South Korea, Trump will deliver remarks to the South Korean National Assembly and visit the national cemetery to pay respects to fallen troops. He also will deliver a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a free and open Asia Pacific, the administration official said.
Much of the president's trip will focus on galvanizing international support for continued pressure on North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. In Tokyo, Trump will meet with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s.
The Trump administration and the United Nations have increased economic sanctions on Pyongyang, including new authority for the Treasury Department to sanction international banks and companies that do business with the North. The president has escalated his rhetoric, saying during a U.N. speech last month that the United States is prepared to “totally destroy” the North if necessary, and he has belittled dictator Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man.”
The White House official said that the United States has tried for 25 years to negotiate a “good faith” agreement with Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear ambitions and maintain productive diplomatic dialogue.
“At every turn, the U.S. has been cheated, the world has been tricked, the U.N. has been humiliated,” the official said. “This administration made a good-faith effort to signal to North Korea that our door was open to dialogue.... That olive branch was returned with roughly 20 ballistic missile tests, including a couple launched over Japan; ICBM tests; the test of a large nuclear device; the death of an American hostage; two more hostages — there are now three in North Korea — and the assassination of a man [Kim's half brother] at an international airport using a nerve agent.”
The official added: “If we fail to confront and deter the threat of North Korea, we'll be living in a much darker era. The president's rhetoric and, more importantly, his action led to the most substantial shift and progress within the international community in confronting this threat.”
The official declined to say whether the president would hold bilateral meetings with other foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is scheduled to attend APEC.
The president also will focus on trade and economics during his trip. Trump has pushed for a renegotiation of a U.S.-South Korea trade deal signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, and he has offered mixed signals over Beijing's economic policy, at times accusing China of manipulating trade rules.
Trump is frustrated by "huge barriers of access to Chinese markets," the White House official said. "The president is intent on redefining that situation."
Meanwhile, news reports in Tokyo suggest that Abe is preparing to play a round of golf with Trump. The two played during Abe's visit to Mar-a-Lago in the spring.
“I would not be surprised if they have an opportunity to play,” the White House official said. “Somebody, probably me, will be carrying [Trump's] golf bag on the airplane.”