While mentioning the Korea-US free trade agreement, Trump suddenly warned on Friday that he “may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea,” in an effort to gain more leverage in potential talks with the rogue nation.
“You know why? Because it’s a very strong card. And I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” Trump said in a speech in Ohio. He did not explain why such move would help the US gain more leverage.
The surprise warning closely follows the two Koreas’ decision to hold a bilateral summit on April 27 ahead of a possible meeting between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un by the end of May.
Cheong Wa Dae stressed the trust between the allies, but said it will have to look into the meaning of Trump’s announcement, alluding that it was an unexpected move on their part.
“We will try to find the true intention (behind President Trump’s remark),” said a Cheong Wa Dae official. “The trust between South Korea and the US remains unwavering regarding the issues of diplomatic security. We will have to look into the meaning as a joint statement (on the trade deal) was already ‘fundamentally released’ with (US Trade Representative) Robert Lighthizer.”
Experts are interpreting Trump’s remarks as a message to South Korea that it will keep an eye on the liberal Moon Jae-in government’s steps throughout the inter-Korean summit and the US-North Korea negotiations that is expected to follow.
“North Korea has called for South Korea and the US to take a ‘progressive and synchronous’ approach towards the issue of denuclearization, but the US may be considering drawing a different measure for the issue,” Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy said.
Kim Jong-un, in his recent summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, said the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be “resolved” if South Korea and the US “respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
“Considering the role of South Korea in this situation, Seoul must approach the issue with a balanced and cautious attitude,” Shin added.
Others say that the remark was aimed at pleasing Trump’s domestic audience and supporters given the timing and location of the speech.
“The US is preparing for the 2018 midterm elections and some voters are not pleased with the result of the recent trade deal with South Korea -- it’s just Trump’s way of words in winning the hearts of his supporters,” Min Jeong-hun, another professor at KNDA said, pointing out that the speech was originally aimed to show his support for domestic infrastructure improvement.
Meanwhile, the US State Department said Washington is pleased with the decision by the two Koreas to hold a summit.
“The fact that South Korea is having talks with North Korea -- that helped get us to this point,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in an interview on CNN. “We are closely linked up with them. We talk with them constantly about these upcoming meetings. So we‘re pleased to see this development.”
South Korea and the US earlier this week agreed to revise their six-year-old free trade agreement with a side deal to deter competitive currency devaluation by Seoul and more access for US automakers and drug makers to the South Korean market. The deal also lifts the threat of a 25 percent US tariff on imports of steel from South Korea in exchange for quotas that will effectively cut US imports of Korean steel by about 30 percent. Without the agreement in place, the tariffs would take effect May 1.
Trump said he will meet with Kim Jong-un by the end of May after a South Korean special envoy to President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang earlier this month and delivered Kim’s message expressing willingness to put denuclearization on the table.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)