President Donald Trump said on Monday that he would be “honoured” to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, despite historic levels of mistrust and tension between the world’s superpower and the rogue state over its nuclear ambitions.
Mr Trump’s comments contrast with his hardline stance on Pyongyang and Friday’s call from Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, for the UN to impose “painful sanctions” on North Korea to deter its nuclear programme. A weekend ballistic missile test was widely seen as North Korea’s defiant response.
North Korea, which has previously pledged to destroy the US, has become the most urgent national security threat and foreign policy issue facing Mr Trump. President Barack Obama, who said during his 2008 election campaign that he would be prepared to meet Mr Kim, warned Mr Trump of the North Korean threat during their handover talks.
Tensions between the US and North Korea — which have no diplomatic relations — are regularly heightened at this time of year, as North Korea celebrates several patriotic anniversaries, and the US conducts military exercises in the area. In recent weeks, however, tensions have reached an unprecedented pitch.
Mr Trump has recently refused to rule out a unilateral military strike against North Korea and last month told the FT that if China will not intervene to stem its neighbour’s ambitions then “we will”. North Korea has accused the US of “intimidation and blackmail”, and experts fear that intercontinental ballistic missiles it is developing may one day be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as the US.
Observers on Monday struggled to place Mr Trump’s comments on a spectrum running from throwaway remark to attempt to defuse dangerous tensions. The US president has often delighted in making overtures to strongmen rulers whom other people decry as dictators, whether extending friendship to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, inviting Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte to visit or, during his campaign last year, saying he would like to eat “a hamburger” with Mr Kim.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it,” Mr Trump told Bloomberg on Monday. “Most political people would never say that but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him.” Mr Trump described Kim as “a pretty smart cookie” to a CBS newscaster the previous day.
Mr Trump did not stipulate his conditions, but Mr Kim has not met a foreign leader since taking charge in 2011 and has never left the country. Mr Trump would be unlikely to visit North Korea and has previously said he would invite Mr Kim to the US, but not for a state dinner.
Jenny Town, North Korea programme manager at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that while North Korea “tends to be better behaved when in a negotiation versus when they’re not”, Mr Trump’s offer was unlikely to deliver any de-escalation.
“I don’t even think it was a productive approach,” she said, arguing for greater consistency from the US administration. “In the usual call-and-response [in US-North Korea relations] this year, the x-factor has been Trump rhetoric feeding in and being more threatening.”
The prospect of a meeting also stoked concern among human rights groups, which say it would only legitimise a regime that relies on abuses including public executions, starvation and labour camps for its control. “It’s a ‘fool’s errand’,” said Sarah Margon, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington.
“A meeting itself is leverage and a tool to influence actions by the North Koreans,” Ms Margon said. “He [Mr Trump] would have to take the meeting as part of a larger strategy not just on proliferation issues but on human rights. You can’t really talk about one without the other.”
The US and its allies have tried a range of diplomatic overtures and threats to stem North Korea’s nuclear development in recent years, veering from multilateral talks and food aid to direct threats and punitive sanctions.
Yet North Korea has continued to carry out nuclear tests and develop long-range missiles. White House spokesman Sean Spicer attempted to damp down expectations of a new diplomatic push when he said later on Monday that “conditions are not there right now”.