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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Update at 1645 EST: This article has been updated to include additional comments from U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said Washington was focused on a “big deal” for denuclearizing North Korea, though added that the two sides could potentially work on smaller agreements.
Trump made the remarks alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is in Washington for a summit with his U.S. counterpart.
“I’d have to see what the deal is. There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You could work out, step-by-step, pieces,” Trump told assembled reporters.
“But at this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid the nuclear weapons.”
Sanctions would remain in place for now, the U.S. president added, though added he thought the current “level” of pressure was enough.
“We want sanctions to remain in place. And, frankly, I have the option of significantly increasing them. I didn’t want to do that because of my relationship with Kim Jong Un. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t think it was necessary,” Trump said.
The U.S. President also reiterated his belief that North Korea has “tremendous” economic potential as it is surrounded by ocean and potentially large trading partners like China, Russia, and South Korea.
During his remarks to the press, the South Korean president said he did not believe that February’s Hanoi summit between Washington and Pyongyang should be considered a failure.
“I believe that the Hanoi Summit is not actually — was not a source of disappointment, but it is actually the part of a bigger process that will lead us to a bigger agreement,” Moon said.
“So the important task that I face right now is to maintain the momentum of dialogue and also express the positive outlook.”
Prior to the brief press pool the White House also issued a statement indicating that North Korea and U.S. – South Korea trading relationship will be on the agenda during the meeting between the two leaders.
The statement called South Korea a “vital partner in developing negotiations” with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and indicated that the U.S. is open to talking about economic engagement projects with the North.
“President Trump and President Moon Jae-in will discuss a range of matters, including the latest developments regarding North Korea,” the statement read.
“The United States and the ROK have been prepared to explore economic development options for North Korea should the right conditions be met.”
But Trump’s statements on sanctions will likely not be welcomed by the South Korean president, who has publicly lobbied for UN member states to consider relaxing UN restrictions on North Korea.
Numerous South Korean officials have in recent weeks argued for what they have called an “early harvest” for the North, in which the country would receive incremental incentives in exchanged for steps towards denuclearization.
According to a statement from South Korea’s Presidential Senior Secretary for Public Relations Yoon Do-han in March, Moon is looking to discuss how Washington and Seoul can “establish a peace regime on the Korean peninsula through complete denuclearization.”
Earlier in March, Moon also indicated he wanted to discuss reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) with his U.S. counterpart.
During a speech marking the centenary of the beginning of Korea’s March 1 independence movement, Moon said he would “consult with the U.S. on ways to resume cooperation at Kumgang mountain and the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.”
But during the question and answer session with the press on Thursday, Trump said he did not believe it was the right time to reopen the Kaesong Complex.
Meanwhile, President Moon also held separate meetings earlier in the day with Vice President Mike Pence and with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
According to a statement from the Blue House, Pence told Moon during their meeting that “the door is open for dialogue” with North Korea and that the U.S. is “hopeful about the resumption” of talks.
Moon, in turn, told Pence that he “would do all it takes for the complete denuclearization and establishment of peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
Another Blue House statement on the meeting with Pompeo and Bolton praised the two for their work in the denuclearization process, and said Moon was briefed on “U.S. assessments of the U.S.-DPRK Hanoi Summit and future measures.”
Moon also “emphasized the need for maintaining momentum” in talks and “the top-down approach to secure the desired outcome.”
The U.S. State Department released only a short statement on the meeting, saying the two sides “vowed to continue close cooperation” on denuclearization and other issues.
Soo Kim, a former North Korea analyst at the CIA, told NK News following the summit that Trump merely used the opportunity with Moon to “[drive] home his key points – sanctions will not be lifted, and Washington will bide its time for a proper deal.”
“Seoul has emphasized [in their statements] the glints of optimism President Trump dangled before his South Korean guests to report back to its domestic audience that the two sides have reaffirmed their common goal of denuclearization,” she said, but added that “this is at best an impartial capture of Thursday’s lightning-round summit.”
“It does not account for the remarkably short face-to-face time between the two leaders and the sparse substance of the talks,” Kim added, saying that it “remains to be seen how the Moon administration will package the outcome of the summit for its domestic audience and Kim Jong Un, whose patience is also thinning post-Hanoi disappointment.”
Another expert told NK News that the South Korean President “had an exceptionally tough challenge in this summit.”
“He had to get President Trump re-engaged in North Korea diplomacy in a way that would get the diplomatic process back on track,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department East Asia desk officer.
He added that while Trump offered “some positive sentiments … there was little clear indication that Moon was able to get Washington to budge from its reactive, inflexible position.”
David Kim, an analyst with the Stimson Center and a former U.S. diplomat, also said he did not think the two leaders “could have moved the needle that much on North Korea” in their brief meeting covering a range of topics in addition to the DPRK.
Kim also told NK News he believes there remains an “internal tussle within” the Trump administration, between Bolton pushing the “big deal” approach and others such as Pompeo and Stephen Biegun, Special Representative for North Korea within the State Department, who would like to see a step-by-step process.
He said the administration remains united around the “end goal of getting [Kim Jong Un] to make the strategic decision to denuclearize,” but that it “hasn’t happened yet, and until that’s made clear by the North Koreans, I think the Admin’s hardline (and even contradictory) rhetoric will continue.”
“It’s now a question of how Trump and Moon rectify the U.S. position on prioritizing denuclearization with Moon’s strategy of including denuclearization as part of a larger peace regime agenda,” he added, saying the disagreement between Washington and Seoul, much as it is with Pyongyang, comes down to preferences in sequencing.
Despite the hiccups, however, he said Moon, Trump, and Kim Jong Un all appear to be still committed to diplomacy and more leader-level summits, possibly even the first trilateral between the three.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Blue House