SEOUL (Reuters) - President Donald Trump will wrap up his visit to Seoul on Wednesday with a major speech on North Korea and then shift focus to China, where he is expected to press a reluctant President Xi Jinping to tighten the screws further on Pyongyang, U.S. officials say.
Trump’s address to South Korea’s National Assembly will come a day after he seemed to take a more balanced approach: threatening to use America’s full military might against North Korea if needed, but also offering it a diplomatic opening to “make a deal” to end the nuclear standoff.
While Trump presented no specific solution to his toughest global security challenge, his more conciliatory rhetoric toward North Korea could help lower tensions between Washington and Pyongyang that have put much of the east Asian region on edge over the prospects for military conflict.
It contrasted markedly with Trump’s earlier threats to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatened the United States, and the personal insults he exchanged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the unpredictable Trump, in his final day on North Korea’s doorstep, will build on this approach or return to the bellicose language that has characterized his handling of the North Korean issue.
Trump’s official “talking points” for his Asia tour show that he intends to use the speech in part to contrast South Korea’s “amazing rise” with North Korea’s “sad, backward state” and to urge resolve against Pyongyang, according to a confidential document reviewed by Reuters. He is also expected to condemn Pyongyang for its poor human rights record.
Trump will then fly to Beijing where, according to senior administration officials, he will try to convince Xi to squeeze North Korea further with steps such as limits on oil exports, coal imports and financial transactions.
Previewing his Beijing visit, Trump told a news conference in Seoul on Tuesday that China and North Korea’s other giant neighbor, Russia, were among countries whose cooperation will be crucial in getting North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programs.
“President Xi … has been very helpful. We’ll find out how helpful soon,” Trump said.
But it is far from clear if Xi, who has just consolidated his power at a Communist Party congress, will agree to do more.
China says its leverage over Pyongyang is exaggerated by the West, and points to its support in the U.N. Security Council for recent sanctions on North Korea as evidence that it is doing all it can to curtail the isolated nation’s nuclear and missile tests.
“On this issue, China’s position and stance is already very clear and staunch,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday. “Everyone can see clearly that we don’t need anybody to tell us what we should be doing.”
But with Trump appearing to crack open the door to diplomacy with North Korea – something that China has long urged – he may have a better chance of securing further promises to intensify economic pressure on North Korea, which relies on Beijing for more than 90 percent of its trade.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however, has seemed willing to risk snubbing China when he deems it useful as he pursues development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
At the same time, Xi may be mindful that Trump has held off on trade actions against China that he loudly threatened during the 2016 presidential campaign to give Beijing more time to make progress on North Korea.
For his part, Xi will also be looking to maintain the good personal chemistry the two leaders developed when Trump hosted him at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in April.
The “bromance” is set to continue when Xi returns the favor by laying on a lavish welcome for Trump’s visit starting on Wednesday.
Trump is expected to go to the Forbidden City, possibly guided by Xi, and participate in an inspection of Chinese troops, though China has released few other details.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing, Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Mark Heinrich