Exclusive: Trump says 'major, major' conflict with North Korea possible, but seeks diplomacy

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday a major conflict with North Korea is possible in the standoff over its nuclear and missile programs, but he would prefer a diplomatic outcome to the dispute.

"There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely," Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Trump said he wanted to peacefully resolve a crisis that has bedeviled multiple U.S. presidents, a path that he and his administration are emphasizing by preparing a variety of new economic sanctions while not taking the military option off the table.

"We'd love to solve things diplomatically but it's very difficult," he said.

In other highlights of the 42-minute interview, Trump was cool to speaking again with Taiwan's president after an earlier telephone call with her angered China.

He also said he wants South Korea to pay the cost of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system, which he estimated at $1 billion, and intends to renegotiate or terminate a U.S. free trade pact with South Korea because of a deep trade deficit with Seoul.

Asked when he would announce his intention to renegotiate the pact, Trump said: “Very soon. I’m announcing it now.”

Trump also said he was considering adding stops to Israel and Saudi Arabia to a Europe trip next month, emphasizing that he wanted to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He complained that Saudi Arabia was not paying its fair share for U.S. defense.

Asked about the fight against Islamic State, Trump said the militant group had to be defeated.

"I have to say, there is an end. And it has to be humiliation," he said, when asked about what the endgame was for defeating Islamist violent extremism.

XI 'TRYING VERY HARD'

Trump said North Korea was his biggest global challenge. He lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for Chinese assistance in trying to rein in Pyongyang. The two leaders met in Florida earlier this month.

"I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well.

"With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it's possible that he can’t," Trump said.

Trump spoke just a day after he and his top national security advisers briefed U.S. lawmakers on the North Korean threat and one day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will press the United Nations Security Council on sanctions to further isolate Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

The Trump administration on Wednesday declared North Korea "an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority." It said it was focusing on economic and diplomatic pressure, including Chinese cooperation in containing its defiant neighbor and ally, and remained open to negotiations.

U.S. officials said military strikes remained an option but played down the prospect, though the administration has sent an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine to the region in a show of force.

Any direct U.S. military action would run the risk of massive North Korean retaliation and huge casualties in Japan and South Korea and among U.S. forces in both countries.

'I HOPE HE'S RATIONAL'

Trump, asked if he considered North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be rational, said he was operating from the assumption that he is rational. He noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

"He's 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age.

"I'm not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I'm just saying that's a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he's rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he's rational," he said.

Trump, sipping a Coke delivered by an aide after the president ordered it by pressing a button on his desk, rebuffed an overture from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who told Reuters a direct phone call with Trump could take place again after their first conversation in early December angered Beijing.

China considers neighboring Taiwan to be a renegade province.

"My problem is that I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi," said Trump. "I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation. So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him.

"So I would certainly want to speak to him first."

Trump also said he hoped to avoid a potential government shutdown amid a dispute between congressional Republicans and Democrats over a spending deal with a Saturday deadline looming.

But he said if a shutdown takes place, it will be the Democrats' fault for trying to add money to the legislation to "bail out Puerto Rico" and other items.

He also defended the one-page tax plan he unveiled on Wednesday from criticism that it would increase the U.S. deficit, saying better trade deals and economic growth would offset the costs.

"We will do trade deals that are going to make up for a tremendous amount of the deficit. We are going to be doing trade deals that are going to be much better trade deals," Trump said.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks out a window of the Oval Office following an interview with Reuters at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria



Donald Trump warns of a 'major, major conflict' with North Korea

Donald Trump has said that a “major conflict” is possible with North Korea though he would prefer to solve the standoff over the country’s nuclear and missile programmes through diplomacy.

Trump’s warning on Thursday came towards the end of a week where the administration has made a concerted effort to restrain Pyongyang from carrying out major new weapons tests.

At the same time, US officials sought to clarify US policy after a variety of mixed signals in the administration’s first 100 days.

Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said that the US would be prepared to enter into direct talks with the regime of Kim Jong-un, but that it would have to prepare to negotiate getting rid of all its nuclear weapons.

The opening to diplomacy came as the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris told the Senate that the standoff with North Korea was the worst he had seen. It was an assessment echoed by the president.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” the president added.

Trump suggested there had been a breakthrough in Chinese readiness to help apply pressure on Kim since Xi Jinping visited the US president in Florida earlier this month.

“I believe he [the Chinese president] is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well,” Trump said.

“With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it’s possible that he can’t.”

Tillerson had earlier said the Chinese had warned Pyongyang, an increasingly unruly client in recent years, that it would impose punitive measures if North Korea carried out provocative tests.

“We know that China is in communications with the regime in Pyongyang,” he told Fox News. “They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test.”

According to Tillerson, the Chinese told the regime “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own”.

China refused to confirm or deny the US claim of new pressure. A foreign ministry spokesman reiterated China’s support for UN sanctions on the North, but repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer when asked at a daily press briefing about what other plans China might be considering.

The US secretary of state said that the North Korean regime viewed its nuclear weapons and missile programmes as a guarantee of survival, and that the Trump administration sought to change that mindset.

“We want to change that calculus of theirs and we have said to them: your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons and we and other countries will help you on the way to economic development,” Tillerson said. He assured Pyongyang that the US objective was ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, not toppling Kim Jong-un.

“We do not seek a regime change in North Korea. We are not seeking the collapse of the regime.”

Tillerson said that the US administration would “wait as long as it takes” for talks to start providing North Korea conducted no new nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

The secretary of state did not directly reply to a question on whether this policy was very similar to the “strategic patience” pursued by the Obama administration, which Tillerson had earlier said had come to an end.

In his Oval Office interview with Reuters, Trump offered an assessment of Kim.

Asked if he considered the North Korean leader to be rational he noted that Kim had taken over his country at an early age.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age,” he said.

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Meanwhile, in a sign that North Korea’s regional neighbours are taking the threat of a conflict seriously, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that Pyongyang could launch a nuclear attack on nations and claimed China has not applied enough pressure on the regime.

“There is the possibility and the risk that North Korea could launch an attack on its neighbours,” Turnbull said on 3AW radio.

“That is the reason why there is so much effort being put into seeking to stop this reckless and dangerous conduct by the North Korean regime. They are a real threat to the peace and stability in the region and to the whole world.”

Turnbull said while North Korea was often a subject of satire, the country had nuclear weapons and regularly threatened to use them.

“Their threats can appear sometimes to be theatrical and over the top and they have been the subject of satire but I can assure you that my government takes ... the threat of North Korea very seriously,” he said.

On Friday morning Tillerson will chair a special ministerial session of the UN security council on North Korea, aimed at convincing other members to impose existing sanctions on Pyongyang more rigorously.

In Washington, the head of the Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball, welcomed the Trump administration’s readiness for direct talks with North Korea.

“There are some new things here. They are making clear that regime change is not the goal. There is a recognition that North Korea has security concerns,” Kimball said. “I think what we hearing the evening is more of the engagement part of the maximum pressure engagement policy that they are slowly rolling out.”

He added: “It’s going to require persistence and patience.”


Trump fears 'major, major conflict' with North Korea

US President Donald Trump has said he would like to solve the North Korea crisis diplomatically, but that a "major, major conflict" is possible.

China's foreign minister called for negotiation and dialogue.

The UN Security Council is meeting to discuss North Korea on Friday and will consider further measures to counter its nuclear and missile programmes.

The country has made several military shows of strength in recent weeks but a missile it was testing failed.
America sent warships to the region and began installing a controversial anti-missile system in South Korea earlier this week.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington would negotiate with North Korea with a view to removing nuclear weapons from the country, not changing the government.

He told NPR radio in the US: "We do not seek regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula.

"We seek a denuclearised Korean peninsula - and that is entirely consistent with the objectives of others in the region as well."

North Korea has carried out repeated missile tests in recent months and is threatening to conduct its sixth nuclear test.

Mr Tillerson also indicated that he thought China, North Korea's major ally, might be starting to see the regime as a "liability" or a security risk.

"What China is beginning to re-evaluate is whether North Korea is any kind of an asset to them, or whether North Korea themselves and the regime have become a liability to China's own security," he said.

Shortly after being elected, Mr Trump accused China of not doing enough to rein in North Korea and suggested the US could take unilateral action.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has warned that tensions on the Korean peninsula risk getting out of control, and ahead of Friday's meeting he said negotiations with North Korea are "the only right choice".
According to Mr Tillerson, China has told the US it will impose sanctions on North Korea if it conducts further nuclear tests.

In a wide-ranging interview inside the Oval Office, Mr Trump praised China's President Xi Jinping for his handling of North Korea, calling him "a very good man" who loved his country.

He said Mr Xi "certainly doesn't want to see turmoil and death".

"He is a very good man and I got to know him very well," he said.

"He loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it's possible that he can't."

Mr Trump also said it had been "very hard" for Kim Jong-un to take over North Korea at such a young age.
He said: "He's 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age."

But he stressed he was "not giving him credit", and added: "I hope he's rational."

"There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely," said Mr Trump.

Other developments have raised tensions in recent weeks:
  • North Korea executed a failed missile launch and held a massive military parade in an apparent show of strength
  • The US deployed a group of warships and a submarine to the region
  • Pyongyang reacted angrily, threatening a "super-mighty pre-emptive strike"
  • The US began installing a controversial $1bn (£775m) anti-missile system system called Thaad in South Korea - which Mr Trump said South Korea should pay for. Seoul said on Friday there was "no change" in its position that the US pays for it
  • Mr Tillerson and US Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea, reiterating that "all options are on the table" in dealing with the North

In February, China banned coal imports from North Korea - one of the country's key exports - and is reportedly also considering restricting oil shipments if Pyongyang continues to behave belligerently.

What else did Mr Trump say?
The president reflected on how the demands of his job were greater than his "previous life", which he said he had loved.

"You're really into your own little cocoon, because you have such massive protection that you really can't go anywhere," he said.

"I like to drive. I can't drive any more."

On other key topics, Mr Trump said:
  • He would speak to Mr Xi before again contacting Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, after China lodged a formal complaint over a phone call he made in December
  • He said so-called Islamic State must be eradicated and that Islamist extremism had to be defeated - "and it has to be humiliation"
  • He could see no reason why Israel and the Palestinians should not make peace

Earlier, Russia's President Vladimir Putin called for the resumption of talks with North Korea.

Speaking in Moscow, where he met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he urged those involved to "refrain from using belligerent rhetoric".

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