UPDATE : 2018.7.16 MON 17:43
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Trump appears to ease rhetoric on N. Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump struck a markedly different tone Tuesday as he called on the North Korean regime to "make a deal" on its nuclear weapons program.

Speaking in Seoul, some 40 kilometers from the North Korean border, Trump refrained from the language that has defined his handling of the North. There was no threat of "fire and fury" or total destruction for the communist regime.

The American president instead urged Pyongyang to "do the right thing" for its own people and all of humanity, saying there is "a lot of good reason behind it."

"I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that's good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world," he said alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the latter's office, Cheong Wa Dae.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump exchange looks as they hold a joint news conference at South Korea's presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, in Seoul on Nov. 7, 2017.

"I do see certain movement, yes. But let's see what happens," he added, without elaborating.

Trump's trip to South Korea and the broader Asia region came at a time of heightened tension over North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang tested two long-range missiles in July and detonated its sixth and most powerful nuclear device in September, putting the region and the world beyond on edge.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said days before Trump's tour that there are "growing fears" among U.S. Asia watchers that the president is "increasingly likely to favor a military strike" on Pyongyang to remove the threat.

Jung Pak, a former CIA official and current Korea chair at the Brookings Institution, also expressed concern a day earlier that Trump and Moon could come away from their summit meeting with divergent views. Trump has openly talked about the possibility of military strike options against Pyongyang, while Moon is a longtime advocate of engagement with the recalcitrant regime.

A conflict with North Korea could leave up to 300,000 people dead in the first days of fighting, according to a recent report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, even if the North uses only conventional munitions, not nuclear weapons.

Donald Manzullo, president of the Korea Economic Institute of America, held out hope for a resumption of dialogue with the North.

"With tensions relatively low at the moment, there may be an opening for meaningful dialogue, if North Korea is willing to come to the table," he said. But he also noted that it's too early to say the shift in Trump's tone is more than a temporary change.

"If North Korea refrains from additional provocations, President Trump could maintain a more conventional tone," according to the former Republican lawmaker. "In this trip to South Korea, President Trump is echoing what President Moon has been saying about being firm through sanctions and at the same time remaining open to meaningful negotiations."

It has been widely reported that Pyongyang could stage another provocation during or around Trump's visit to Seoul. North Korea has yet to respond to Trump's latest remarks.

Pak also voiced caution about jumping to conclusions.

"He appears to have toned down the rhetoric regarding North Korea, so far. I'll be watching for his National Assembly speech," she said, referring to the address planned for Wednesday.

Still, it was a good summit and the joint news conference reflected a "unity of views" in terms of how to deal with the North Korean threat, according to Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"President Trump made clear statements in support of the defense of Korea and in appreciation of the long history of the alliance, one in which two countries fought side by side in every war since the Korean War," he said. "I think the two leaders have the same strategy going forward -- maximum pressure on the regime to convince them that nuclear weapons only makes the regime more, not less, insecure."

Cha is reportedly Trump's pick for ambassador to Seoul, although no announcement has been made.

Kim Sua  edt@koreapost.com

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