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Trump hails progress on North Korea but warns of 'false hope'

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday warily welcomed word of a possible diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, cautioning that it “may be false hope” but praising international efforts to get the Stalinist regime to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He later said he believed that the offer was “sincere” but was motivated by the tough economic sanctions squeezing the impoverished nation.

“Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Trump said on Twitter. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

It was not clear whether “go hard” included possible U.S. military action — a strike that could precipitate a catastrophic regional war with millions of casualties. But the president has previously indicated that he is prepared to use force to prevent North Korea from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.

As the day wore on, Trump’s skepticism about what would be a major development on one of the world’s tensest stand-offs seemed to melt away a little.

Later Tuesday, in the Oval Office with visiting Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden, Trump sounded slightly more optimistic.

“We have come, certainly, a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea,” the president said, adding that successful talks would be “a great thing for the world.”

Trump declined to label the announcement a breakthrough, or to say whether he had any preconditions for starting negotiations.

In a joint press conference after meeting with Löfven, the president said that North Korea appeared to be acting in good faith — albeit because of tight economic sanctions aimed at starving the regime of cash and fuel, and under pressure from China, its de facto patron.

“I think that they are sincere, but I think they’re sincere also because of the sanctions,” Trump said. “I really believe they are sincere. I hope they’re sincere. We’re going to soon find out.”

President Trump at a meeting in the White House on March 5. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump has successfully pushed for several rounds of escalating economic sanctions against the country and its ruler Kim Jong Un, even convincing China to curb trade with the regime.

The president’s remarks came after South Korea and North Korea concluded a summit in the North’s capital, Pyongyang. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office released a statement saying that Kim told Moon’s envoys that he is prepared to start talks with the United States on scrapping its nuclear weapons and to freeze nuclear and missile tests during the negotiations. In return, Washington would have to give Pyongyang security guarantees.

“The North Korean side clearly state its willingness to denuclearize,” Moon’s office said. “It made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”

There was no immediate comment from the North, which had dramatically stepped up its nuclear and missile tests during Trump’s 14 months in office, while steadfastly insisting that it will not abandon either program. Analysts say Kim views those weapons as vital to his regime’s survival, and it was not clear what sort of security guarantees Washington might be willing to provide.

Moon’s office also said that the two Koreas would hold a summit in April on neutral ground, in the Peace House at Panmunjom, on their shared border, and that the two leaders would establish a hotline. The statement also said North Korea aimed to “normalize” relations with the United States.

The Trump administration has been inconsistent on whether it is prepared to talk with North Korea, and under what conditions, if any.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, his sister Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, meet members of the South Korean delegation. (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

When Vice President Mike Pence traveled to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics there, he publicly snubbed Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. But Pence’s office later revealed that North Korea had backed out of plans for the vice president to meet with North Korean officials during the trip — and made no mention of any preconditions for those talks.

Over the weekend, Trump joked at the annual dinner thrown by the Gridiron Club of journalists about the tense relationship with Pyongyang.

“I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un. I just won’t,” the president said. “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine.”

During a Feb. 26 meeting with governors at the White House, Trump said of North Korea: “They want to talk. And we want to talk also, only under the right conditions. Otherwise, we’re not talking.”

A few days earlier, Trump had talked tough about North Korea as he welcomed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go ‘Phase 2,’ and Phase 2 may be a very rough thing — may be very, very unfortunate for the world,” Trump said. “But hopefully, the sanctions will work.”

By Trump’s standards — he has threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea or “totally destroy” it — his comment was relatively mild. But military conflict with Pyongyang could turn into a catastrophic all-out war that would put millions of lives at risk in North and South Korea, as well as in nearby Japan.

In January, Moon’s office said that Trump told the South Korean leader by telephone that he was not considering a so-called “bloody nose” military strike — a one-off hit meant to drag Kim to the negotiating table by signaling that the United States is serious about potentially using force. A White House summary of the call omitted this assurance.

The White House summary said that Trump “expressed his openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances.”

At her Feb. 26 briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that Trump himself “would be the lead in taking point on anything that would move forward” regarding talks with North Korea.

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