President strikes softer tone on North Korea at United Nations

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Nonproliferation issues are dominating President Trump’s appearance at this year’s United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly.

The president is already striking a decidedly softer tone on North Korea compared to his remarks at last year’s gathering of world leaders, but he’s expected to have stern words for Iran later this week.

{mosads}Trump conferred on Monday with South Korea’s president about efforts to denuclearize North Korea, and he is preparing to chair a Security Council meeting on Wednesday that’s likely to focus on Iran.

Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also sealed the deal on a revised U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement, which threatened to be a point of tension in the alliance at a time when both countries need to present a united front against North Korea.

“I think a lot of progress is being made,” Trump said on North Korea talks, sitting next to Moon. “I see tremendous enthusiasm on behalf of Chairman Kim for making a deal, and I think that’s something that’s very good.”

Monday marked Trump’s first return to the international body since his explosive inaugural address last year, when he dubbed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. In the same speech he referred to Iran as “another reckless regime.”

Experts expect a less fiery speech when Trump addresses the General Assembly on Tuesday as he seeks to portray progress on his talks with Kim.

“I think the president’s speeches will have much less bomb-throwing than there was last year,” Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on a conference call with reporters. “I don’t think you’re going to see the ‘Little Rocket Man’ kind of attacks.”

Administration officials said Monday that Trump’s speech on Tuesday will focus on sovereignty.

“Whether it’s security issues, economic issues, human rights or anything else, the president’s asking for countries to exert their sovereignty to solve challenges,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference Monday.

“This emphasis on sovereignty was, of course, the theme of President Trump’s speech to the General Assembly last year,” he added. “That theme will endure in his speech tomorrow, along with a recap of how his call for every nation to do its part has paid dividends for the United States and the world over this past year.”

Pompeo cited Trump’s efforts on North Korea as one of those “dividends.”

At his meeting with Moon, Trump offered more rosy assessments of diplomacy with North Korea.

“We’ve made more progress than I think anybody’s made in ever, frankly, with regard to North Korea,” Trump said. “The relationship is very good. In fact, in some ways it’s extraordinary.”

He said a second summit with Kim will happen in the “not too distant future” and that more information will come in a “pretty short period of time.”

The Monday meeting came days after Moon concluded his third summit with Kim. At that meeting, Kim agreed to let international observers watch the forthcoming dismantlement of a missile test site. He also agreed to dismantle a nuclear complex if the United States takes unspecified corresponding steps.

On the basis of those pledges, Moon was expected to use his time with Trump this week to push for a peace declaration ending the Korean War.

“Chairman Kim also repeatedly conveyed his unwavering trust and expectations for you, while expressing his hope to meet you soon to swiftly conclude the denuclearization process with you, because you are, indeed, the only person who can solve this problem,” Moon told Trump.

Iran is the other nuclear issue facing Trump at this year’s General Assembly.

Because Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran in May, the topic was already expected to play a prominent role at this year’s U.N. meeting.

“I’ve only been here for 48 hours, but Iran is one of the top issues that is being discussed, certainly by the Europeans,” Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a member of the the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said on a conference call with reporters Monday.

A Saturday attack on an Iranian military parade that Tehran has blamed on “regional terror sponsors and their U.S. masters” has further underscored the U.S.–Iran tensions going into the U.N. meeting.

The Trump administration is working to convince countries that import oil from Iran to reduce their imports to zero before U.S. sanctions take effect in November. Those countries are hoping to get sanctions waivers as European allies who support the 2015 nuclear deal are scrambling to save it.

Trump on Wednesday is chairing a Security Council meeting that has been billed as a discussion on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Trump, though, tweeted on Friday that the meeting is “on Iran.”

If the meeting were officially about Iran, which is not part of the Security Council, a representative from the country could participate, a potentially dicey confrontation U.S. officials are keen to avoid.

At Monday’s press conference, Pompeo said topics at Wednesday’s meeting will also include Syria and North Korea. But he emphasized Iran’s behavior.

“You can bet the president will have well-deserved strong words for the Iranian regime, which is among the worst violators of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, if not the absolute worst in the world,” Pompeo said. “He’ll call on every country to join our pressure campaign in order to thwart Iran’s global torrent of destructive activity.”

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