U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he would leave sanctions in place on North Korea as he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed ways to get U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks back on track after a failed summit in Hanoi.
Trump, in Oval Office talks with Moon, left open the possibility of a third summit with Kim Jong Un but would not comment on whether he had communicated recently with the North Korean leader. The two men occasionally exchange letters.
North Korea, which has suspended nuclear tests and missile launches, has been pressing for sanctions relief but has not taken meaningful steps toward denuclearization. Little progress has been made between the United States and North Korea despite obvious good will between Trump and Kim.
Trump, asked by reporters whether he was prepared to ease some sanctions on North Korea, said he and Moon were discussing “certain humanitarian things” and the possibility of South Korea helping the North with food.
Of sanctions, he said, “We could always increase them, but I didn’t want to do that at this time.”
Moon said he does not view the Hanoi, Vietnam summit, held in February, as a failure, but part of a longer “process” with the North. Moon said he agrees with Trump on the “ultimate goal” of total denuclearization by North Korea.
“The important task that we face right now is to maintain the momentum of dialog and also express the positive outlook regarding the third U.S.-North Korea summit to the international community, that this will be held in the near future,” Moon said.
Moon arrived in Washington late on Wednesday and held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump‘s national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence before moving on to the White House.
Ahead of his trip, aides to Moon stressed the need to revive U.S.-North Korea talks as soon as possible after a second summit between Trump and Kim collapsed in Hanoi on Feb. 28.
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Moon has put his political reputation on the line in encouraging negotiations between the United States and North Korea aimed at persuading Kim to give up a nuclear weapons program that now threatens the United States.
He has stressed the need to offer North Korea concessions to encourage negotiations, but Washington appears to have hardened its position against a phased approach sought by Pyongyang in which gradual steps would be rewarded with relief from punishing sanctions.
Trump said he was open to a step-by-step approach but would need to see the details.
“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You could work out, step by step, pieces. But at this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons,” he said.
The Hanoi meeting collapsed amid conflicting demands by North Korea for sanctions relief and U.S. insistence on its complete denuclearization.
On Thursday, North Korean state media said Kim had told a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Wednesday that he would push forward with efforts to make the economy more self sufficient “so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring (North Korea) to its knees.”
Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests in place since 2017 unless Washington makes concessions such as easing economic sanctions.
North Korea‘s state media said on Wednesday that Kim had chaired a politburo meeting on Tuesday to discuss ways to make progress under the “prevailing tense situation.”
Pompeo said last week he was “confident” there would be a third summit between Trump and Kim and that while he did not have a timetable, he hoped it would be soon.
Kim and Moon met three times last year and Kim promised to visit South Korea in return for the South Korean leader’s visit to Pyongyang in September. Analysts say a fourth Kim-Moon meeting could help towards another meeting between Kim and Trump.
Moon’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon said on Friday that sanctions were necessary to deter North Korea from “making bad decisions” but could not solve all unresolved problems.
At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Pompeo stressed that “core” U.N. sanctions would have to remain until North Korea‘s complete denuclearization, but reiterated past statements that some easing might be possible if it took significant steps.