President Trump will address areas of disagreement on foreign policy and trade with newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in when the two leaders meet for the first time at the White House on Thursday.
There, the two leaders will grapple with the vexing problem of North Korea, as well as the U.S. trade imbalance with South Korea, which a senior administration official said had “caught the president’s eye.”
On a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, a White House official sought to downplay the differences between Trump and Moon over how to deal with North Korea as the nuclear power ramps up testing of its ballistic missile program.
“The two governments share precisely the same goal — the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” a senior administration official said. “It’s the hard challenge we’ve been wrestling with for decades now. Both have made clear they’re willing and capable of jointly coordinating in achieving that goal.”
But how to get there has revealed some differences between the two.
Moon is advocating for a less confrontational approach with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leaving open the option of diplomacy. Moon has even floated the idea that the Korean peninsula participate in the Olympic games as a whole.
The Trump White House wants to see stiffer diplomatic and economic sanctions levied against North Korea.
“The president’s policy is to substantially increase pressure on North Korea through economic pressure as well as diplomatic pressure in order to change their calculus to have substantive talks with us once they show they’re willing to reduce the threat,” the White House official said. “Right now we see no evidence they're willing to do that.”
Trump has criticized China, North Korea’s largest trade partner, for not doing more to punish the North Korean government.
On the Wednesday call, a White House official said Trump would at some point likely try to sit down to discuss the matter personally at a meeting with both Moon and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
“China is still falling far short of what it could bring to bear on North Korea in terms of pressure,” the official said. “We very much want to see China do more, while we recognize they have done more than they have done in the past.”
The U.S. deployment of its THAAD missile systems in South Korea will also be on the agenda.
Shortly after his election, Moon suspended additional deployments of the missile defense system, saying he wanted to wait on the results of environmental assessment.
The White House official was confident the deployment would continue at some point.
“President Moon has been clear … in stating the view that there is a process involved in completing the deployment of that system,” the official said. “They said it should not be equated with a reversal of the decision to deploy THAAD, so that’s not necessarily a major point of the conversation.”
But Trump does intend to make the issue of trade a major part of the talks.
“There will be friendly and frank discussion about the trade imbalance,” the official said. “The South Korean surplus to the U.S. is shrinking, we’re seeing U.S. exports to South Korea increase, but there is still a large gap that has caught the president’s eye, and he’ll talk about that.”
Trump will be “forthright” in talking about what he views as barriers in South Korea to U.S. automakers and the “enormous” amount of Chinese steel that comes into the U.S. through South Korea.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump will host Moon and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, over cocktails and dinner at the State dining room of the White House on Thursday evening.
On Friday morning, Moon and Vice President Pence will lay a wreath at the Korean War veterans memorial on the National Mall. That will be followed by Trump and Moon’s one-on-one meeting, an expanded meeting with both of their Cabinets and a joint press statement where they will not field questions from the media.