By GERRY MULLANY
HONG KONG – President Donald Trump warned Thursday of the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea in an interview in which he said he was seeking a diplomatic solution to concerns that Pyongyang was preparing to conduct another nuclear test.
In the interview with Reuters, Trump praised President Xi Jinping of China for efforts to resolve the dispute over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs but cautioned that diplomatic efforts might fail.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Trump’s remarks came amid signs that North Korea might soon conduct another underground detonation at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site despite Trump’s warning not to do so. China has played a mediating role in the crisis as Trump has urged Xi to use Beijing’s leverage with North Korea, a longtime ally, to persuade it not to conduct a test.
“I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it,” Trump said of Xi. “He is a good man. He is a very good man, and I got to know him very well.”
In the interview, Trump actually offered some grudging praise for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime,” he said. “So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age.”
“I hope he’s rational,” Trump added of Kim.
The United States has been pressing the United Nations to impose more sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. The diplomatic efforts have coincided with military maneuvers by the United States and South Korea in Pocheon, northeast of Seoul, where the allies have demonstrated some of their latest weapons. In addition, the Michigan, a submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, has arrived in the South Korean port city of Busan. And a U.S. Navy strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson has been sent to the Sea of Japan, which borders the Korean Peninsula.
Earlier this month, as tensions with North Korea were flaring, the Carl Vinson was said to be sailing north, toward the peninsula, when it was actually heading south, toward the Indian Ocean.
To protect against a North Korean attack, the United States is on the verge of making a new anti-missile system operational in South Korea. Trump said he would seek to have South Korea pay for the system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, putting its cost at about $1 billion.
Under its arrangement with Washington, South Korea was to provide land and build a base for the THAAD system, while the United States would pay for it and cover its operational costs.
Trump also said that because of the United States’ sizable trade deficit with South Korea, he intended to renegotiate or end a trade pact with the country. That free trade agreement, called Korus, went into effect in 2012. It contains a framework for trade in both goods and services, and covers environmental issues as well.
Like all free trade deals, it is designed to remove barriers to commerce. South Korea is the United States’ sixth-largest trading partner in goods, with $112.2 billion worth of commerce between the two in 2016, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. South Korea has a $10.7 billion trade deficit in services with the United States but a $27.7 billion trade surplus in goods.
In the Reuters interview, Trump also rejected an overture from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, for further discussions. His telephone call with her in December alarmed China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.
“My problem is that I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi,” Trump said. “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.”
On Thursday, Tsai had raised the possibility of talking with Trump again. “We have the opportunity to communicate more directly with the U.S. government,” she said in an interview. “We don’t exclude the opportunity to call President Trump himself, but it depends on the needs of the situation and the U.S. government’s consideration of regional affairs.”
Reports have suggested that efforts to penalize North Korea economically for its weapons programs are bearing fruit.
The Associated Press, which employs one of the few Western reporters based in Pyongyang, said that a kilogram of gas, which had cost 70 to 80 cents, was now selling for $1.40 at one station and that there were rumors that China was behind the apparent shortage.