SEOUL — President Trump asserted Tuesday that his administration is making “a lot of progress” on North Korea, and he urged dictator Kim Jong Un to “make a deal” at the negotiating table on the rogue nation’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“I do see certain movement, yes, but we’ll see what happens,” he added, without offering any details.
Trump’s remarks came as he prepared to deliver an address to the South Korean National Assembly on Wednesday in which advisers said he intends to call on countries to rally against the growing threat from Pyongyang. On Tuesday, he praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he will meet in Beijing for a three-day summit starting Wednesday, for being “very helpful” and added that China is “trying very hard to solve the problem.” He offered hope that Russia will “likewise be helpful.” Trump has said he expects to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin at a regional summit later in the week in either Vietnam or the Philippines.
“This is not the right time to be doing it, but that’s what I got,” Trump said, complaining that his predecessors at the White House had failed to solve the issue. “This is a problem that should have been taken care of a long time ago.”
The president avoided the type of heated rhetoric he has employed in the past while talking about North Korea, but he emphasized that the United States is “showing great strength.”
North Korea “knows we have unparalleled strength,” Trump said. “There’s never been strength like this.” He cited the presence of three aircraft carriers and a nuclear submarine in the region.
Trump appeared to touch on the themes of his upcoming speech to the South Korean parliament when he urged “people all across the globe" to come together to "confront North Korea's actions and prevent the North Korean dictator from threatening millions of innocent lives." Trump added, "He is threatening millions and millions of lives so needlessly.”
Before the news conference, the president toured Camp Humphreys, the third military base he has visited since leaving Washington on a 12-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region that began last Friday.
Trump landed at the $11 billion base, 40 miles south of Seoul, on Marine One and, after saluting several commanding officers on the tarmac, went to the mess hall to have lunch with troops. He sat down on a bench at a long table in between soldiers dressed in green military fatigues. Trump was accompanied by Moon, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Wearing a navy-blue suit and bright solid blue tie, Trump smiled and waved at reporters.
“Ultimately, it will all work out. It always works out. It has to work out,” Trump said at the start of a briefing with military commanders at the base.
The tour of Camp Humphreys comes on the heels of Trump’s visits to Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
“The United States remains committed to the complete, verifiable and permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” McMaster said last week. “President Trump will reiterate the plain fact that North Korea threatens not just our allies, South Korea and Japan, and the United States — North Korea is a threat to the entire world. So all nations of the world must do more to counter that threat.”
But South Koreans are on edge for Trump's visit, and police have worked to keep protesters at bay. Trump has low public approval numbers here amid concerns that his heated rhetoric toward Kim Jong Un’s regime could lead to a military confrontation. The president has emphasized that military options remain on the table, although he has declined to be specific.
Foreign policy analysts said the stakes are high for Trump to deliver a speech on Wednesday that clearly spells out his administration’s North Korea policy. The administration has made progress in ramping up pressure on the North, but analysts said many in Seoul, as well as Tokyo and Beijing, remain confused because Trump and his senior aides have offered mixed messages.
“People want clarification,” said a former State Department official who worked on Asian affairs during the Obama administration. He spoke on condition of anonymity because his current job outside government does not allow him to speak on the record. “There’s a lot of nervousness in South Korea.”
Camp Humphreys is located in Pyeongtaek, a sleepy rural city that was chosen because it is outside the range of much of the North’s heavy artillery trained on Seoul, where the previous base was located. Recent U.S. presidents have visited the heavily guarded Korean demilitarized zone, but Trump aides said Moon invited the president to tour Camp Humphreys instead. The move was made in part over concerns that a DMZ visit would ratchet up tensions with the North at a time when the Moon government is preparing to host the Winter Olympics early next year.
A senior administration official said Trump will use his speech to highlight the North Korean regime's long history of human rights abuses — against its own people and abroad. Trump lashed out at Kim after the North released Otto Warmbier, an American college student who had been detained for 17 months, comatose. Warmbier died shortly after arriving home in Ohio.
In the speech, there will be “some focus on the often overlooked question of the human rights conditions of North Korea,” said the administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record in a briefing for reporters in Tokyo on Sunday. “I heard one journalist recently described it as the most totalitarian state in the history of humankind. I don’t think that’s an overstatement.”
The official added that “whether it’s bombing airliners or terrorist attacks abroad, or the hundreds of attacks that have taken place over the decades against U.S. and South Korean personnel, or the abductions of Japanese citizens and, of course, South Koreans who have been abducted over the years as well — it would take a lifetime to be able to meet with all of the people who have been victimized by that regime and are still alive to talk about it."
In Tokyo on Monday, Trump met with the families of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents four decades ago to help the regime learn the Japanese language and culture. Five abductees were released more than a decade ago but at least a dozen remain in the North, according to the Japanese government.
In a news conference Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump dismissed suggestions that his rhetoric has created more risk for the United States and its allies. Trump vowed during a United Nations address in September that his administration is prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary, and he has dubbed Kim the “Little Rocket Man” in a series of tweets.
“Some people said that my rhetoric is very strong, but look what’s happened with very weak rhetoric over the last 25 years,” Trump said. “Look where we are right now.”
Yet as he has traveled to the region, Trump also has offered notes of encouragement for North Korean citizens, calling them “great people.”
“They’re under a very repressive regime, and I really think that, ultimately, I hope it all works out,” he said.