Donald Trump tried his best to defuse some of the tension surrounding the perceived threat from North Korea Thursday, by praising the work of Chinese President Xi Jinping, empathizing with dictator Kim Jong Un, and saying he wants to use diplomacy to resolve the crisis.
But, in the end, he couldn’t help himself from issuing this stark warning: “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.”
As Trump would well have known, this single line from a wide-ranging interview conducted with Reuters to mark his 100th day in office is what has been grabbing all the attention.
Many experts see a route of diplomacy and sanctions as the most likely approach the White House will take with Pyongyang. Trump echoed this, saying he would love to “solve things diplomatically,” despite also appearing to suggest an all-out war could be in the cards.
Despite all the bluster, bombastic statements, and displays of military strength in the region in recent weeks, is it very unlikely that Trump will go to war with North Korea, the New York Times reports, quoting senior Trump administration officials.
“We want to bring Kim Jon Un to his senses, not to his knees,” Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the Pentagon’s top commander in the Pacific, told the House Armed Services committee Wednesday.
During a briefing the same day, White House officials told senators that dispatching the USS Carl Vinson carrier group and the USS Michigan nuclear submarine were merely moves designed to dissuade Kim from conducting more missile tests — not preparation for a pre-emptive strike.
Instead of military action, Trump hopes to use China’s influence over North Korea as leverage in limiting Pyongyang’s ability to develop its nuclear arsenal. The relationship between Trump and Xi has been flourishing since the pair met in Mar-a-Lago earlier this month. On Friday he lavished further praise on the Chinese leader:
“I believe he is trying very hard,” Trump said. “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.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed Thursday that China has asked North Korea not to conduct any more nuclear tests, warning Pyongyang that it would impose unilateral sanctions if it went ahead.
Speaking about Kim, Trump appeared to empathize with the dictator, highlighting his young age when he took control of the country. “He’s 27, his father dies, he took over a regime,” Trump said. “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.”
During the interview, Trump touched on a number of other topics. Here are the highlights:
- Trump thought being U.S. president would be “easier” than his previous life in business. “I loved my previous life,” he said. “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
- Five months later, Trump is still obsessed with the election and the fact that he lost the popular vote. In the middle of a discussion about Xi, Trump interrupted the interview to hand out copies of what he said were the latest figures from the 2016 electoral map. “Here, you can take that, that’s the final map of the numbers,” he said. “It’s pretty good, right? The red is obviously us.”
- Trump says that South Korea should pay $1 billion for the controversial THAAD anti-missile defense system, which started being installed this week. Trump said: “I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid.” The announcement has not gone down well in Seoul, with the ministry of defense claiming that under the Status of Forces Agreement — which governs the U.S. military presence in South Korea — it would pay for the site and infrastructure while the U.S. pays for deploying and operating the system.
- On the possibility of a government shutdown, Trump appears resigned to accept whatever happens: “If there’s closure, there’s closure. We’ll see what happens. If there’s a shutdown, it’s the Democrats’ fault. Not our fault. It’s the Democrats’ fault. Maybe they’d like to see a shutdown.”