Trump arrives in Seoul, bringing him close to Kim’s doorstep

President will negotiate with the S. Korean leader that will lead to military sales, reduced trade deficit

By BLOOMBERG

TOKYO • President Donald Trump arrived in South Korea yesterday for a two-day visit, bringing him near North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on a stop that will also feature talks on a trade deal he said hurts US workers.

The second leg of his fivenation Asia trip includes a meeting with US troops, a joint press briefing with President Moon Jae-in and an address to South Korea’s Parliament. In contrast to Trump’s warm relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his dealings with Moon got off to rocky start due to differences over trade and dialogue with North Korea.

At the start of a bilateral meeting with Moon, Trump said that North Korea would be “front and centre” of their discussions, and he’d negotiate “good deals” with the South Korean leader that would lead to military sales and a reduced trade deficit.

Moon congratulated the US president on making “America great again” and commended him for leading international efforts to deal with the North Korea nuclear issue.

“Getting ready to leave for South Korea and meetings with President Moon, a fine gentleman,” Trump tweeted yesterday morning. “We will figure it all out!” Trump and Moon are likely to show a united front against Kim, even while underlying tensions remain. South Korea hosts more than 28,000 US troops and relies on the alliance to deter a North Korean attack.

Pyongyang’s accelerated missile and nuclear weapons programme — and a war of words between Trump and Kim — have ratcheted up tensions in North Asia to the highest level in decades.

Nowhere is that tension felt more acutely than in Seoul, with a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people and a location in striking range of the regime.

The president would be the guest of honour at a lavish state dinner with Moon yesterday. First Lady Melania Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jared Kushner would attend, as well as South Korea’s foreign, finance and defence ministers. Other guests included SK Group chairman Chey Tae Won and Hyundai Motor Co vice chairman Chung Eui-sun.

Trump won’t visit the demilitarised zone dividing South Korea and North Korea during his trip, a senior administration official said last week, describing it as a cliche. Except for George HW Bush, who visited the fortified border as VP, all of Trump’s predecessors since Ronald Reagan have made the trip.

While Trump has threatened military action to stop Kim from acquiring the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon, Moon has sought to reassure South Koreans that another war won’t break out.

The South Korean leader wants to take the “driver’s seat” when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, including a quicker timetable on the US military transferring operational control to his nation in wartime.

North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned in a commentary yesterday that it would be a “big mistake” if the US tries to alarm North Korea with “nuclear threat and blackmail”.

Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to South Korea, told Bloomberg TV that Trump will have a lot more heavy lifting to do with than he did with Abe, who has backed the US president’s hard line on Pyongyang.

“This visit is a challenge for the president to persuade Moon that we need to take a tough line but that he is leaving the door open ultimately to negotiations,” Vershbow said from Washington. “Hopefully the president can convince president Moon we’re not going to rush into any military confrontation with the North, and we’re trying to use the pressure to get them to give up their programmes.”

The US has been considering whether to return North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terror, and Trump has signalled a decision will be announced soon. The nuclear threat is one of the biggest geopolitical challenges for his administration, and one of Trump’s major goals on his Asia visit is coordinating a response by the US, South Korea, Japan and China.

While the US and South Korea look for ways to respond to North Korea, the question of the five-year-old trade deal known as Korus also hangs over talks between Trump and Moon. Trump has called the accord a “job killer” that costs the US US$40 billion (RM168.97 billion) a year, and has threatened to withdraw if South Korea doesn’t agree to terms that reduce America’s growing trade deficit with the country.

South Korea is the US’ seventh-largest trading partner, while the US is South Korea’s second-biggest partner after China. U.S. figures indicate its goods deficit with South Korea was US$27.7 billion last year. Efforts to narrow the gap will probably focus heavily on the auto industry, meaning the administration may push to increase the number of American-made cars that can be sold in South Korea.