Trump optimistic on North Korea talks
President Trump said preparations continue, blames China for N. Koriea’s tougher stand.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump disavowed a controversial remark made by his national security adviser, John Bolton, as he appeared increasingly eager Thursday to preserve a historic oneon-one meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for next month.
Bolton spooked North Korea recently by suggesting Pyongyang follow the path taken by Libya more than a decade ago, when that country abandoned its effort to build nuclear weapons in exchange for economic benefits and warmer relations. Within a few years, Libya’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, lost his job and his life at the hands of Western-backed rebels.
North Korea threatened this week to back out of the summit, citing Bolton as it accused the U.S. of making unreasonable demands for rapid abandonment of its nuclear program.
“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all,” Trump told reporters during a photo session with the visiting secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Jens Stoltenberg. “We decimated that country.”
By contrast, Trump promised that if the United States reaches a deal with North Korea, Kim would “be running his country. His country would be very rich.” The president also vowed that Kim would “get protections that will be very strong,” a sharp departure from the fiery rhetoric Trump used just months ago. Previous administrations have offered economic incentives and pledges not to take hostile action against the North Koreans but have not said they would affirmatively protect the North.
Trump also implied Thursday that China’s president, Xi Jinping, may be trying to influence the North Koreans to take a harder line with the U.S., perhaps in response to U.S. pressure on trade.
Trump’s efforts to soothe Pyongyang highlighted his eagerness to get a deal — an emotion that even some of Trump’s aides fear could lead him to give up too much at the negotiating table.
His disavowal of Bolton’s remark could also undermine Trump’s ability to present a unified front for his administration as he prepares to face off with a country that for decades has defied international laws and scuttled U.S. efforts to rein in its nuclear program.
“When the president openly disagrees with his national security adviser about the objective of talks, that’s going to encourage North Korean mischief, and it’s going to discourage allies who depend on the United States to be steady,” said Michael J. Green, who served as senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush during a prior effort to negotiate with North Korea.
John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said Trump was making clear to North Korea that he is focused on the deal above all else. The North Koreans, as they threatened to withdraw this week, also said they felt misled about the extent of joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises. By laying out their concerns in public without withdrawing, they were leaving Trump a way to preserve the summit, Park said.
“The way that things are playing out right now, the choice for the president is Bolton or the summit,” Park said. “The early signs are that he’s prioritizing the summit,” he said, adding that he did not think Bolton would lose his job.
During the impromptu question-and-answer session, Trump returned twice to China’s role, saying the North Koreans began making more provocative statements shortly after a recent meeting between Kim and Xi, the second between the two. China is North Korea’s most important political and economic ally.
“There has been a big difference since they had the second meeting,” Trump said.
“President Xi could be influencing Kim Jong Un,” Trump added, noting the disputes between the U.S. and China over trade.
But experts in the region say that China generally supports U.S. efforts to broker peace with North Korea, especially if a deal includes a reduction of U.S. troops in the region.
The State Department insisted Thursday that preparations were continuing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Kim, has been on the telephone this week with South Korean officials to assure them that the meeting is still on track. “We always knew there would be twists and turns,” a senior State Department official said.
John Bolton, center, spooked North Korea recently by suggesting it follow the path of Libya more than a decade ago when that country abandoned its nuclear weapons effort.