US Election 2016

US election: To talk or not to talk - Trump raises N Korea question

Donald Trump, file pic Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bemusement is the typical South Korean reaction to Trump comments

The South Korean media hang on Donald Trump's every word - but don't then fly into spasms of high emotion.

They cover the quotes - colourful as they are - but generally don't react beyond reportage.

Politicians, too, are observing but not speaking. "Bemusement" might be the best way to describe the reaction to Donald Trump's offer of face-to-face talks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.

After all, Barack Obama said before he was first elected that he, too, would be prepared to meet the North Korean leader of the time (Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il) face-to-face.

In a presidential primary debate in 2007, Mr Obama was asked whether he would meet "without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?"

He answered: "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [George W Bush] administration - is ridiculous."

One of his Republican opponents at the time, John McCain, who later challenged him in the presidential election, condemned Mr Obama as naive and reckless.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In 2007, Barack Obama also indicated willingness for face-to-face talks

The Obama campaign later clarified he was "not promising summits with all of those leaders".

And in the end, he hasn't talked to North Korea's leader.

When Mr Obama took office, there seemed to be a real possibility of negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear programme.

Pyongyang had tested one nuclear device in 2006 but then tested another in 2009, with Mr Obama freshly installed in the White House. Talks broke down and attitudes hardened.

Mr Trump's offer of talks - if so it is - comes at a time when a widespread global feeling is for sanctions rather than negotiations.

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The Republican presumptive presidential nominee has hardly been cool in his language towards Kim Jong-un.

He recently called him a "maniac" but then added what sounded like a compliment at the way the North Korean leader had consolidated his power: "How many young guys - he was like 26 or 25 when his father died - take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden... he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The North's military actions have led to calls for sanctions rather than negotiations

"It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean this guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him".

Where Mr Trump has drawn stronger reaction in South Korea is over his assertion that Japan might do well to have nuclear weapons of its own.

"Would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that's the case," he said. "If Japan had that nuclear threat, I'm not sure that would be a bad thing for us."

And he upset some with his claim that South Korea and Japan should rely less on American troops on their territory to protect them from North Korean attack.

"How long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?" Mr Trump asked.

"When will they start to pay us?" he added in a video. South Korean media pointed out that South Korea pays hundreds of millions of dollars to the US for its military presence in the region. Broadly, South Korea shoulders half the bill.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A US-South Korea exercise. Mr Trump's views on military spending may be of more concern to the South

Mr Trump's tone on this matter is more likely to be analysed in the back-rooms of power than any vague proposal to talk to Kim Jong-un.

There are already people on the left in both South Korea and Japan who resent the American presence, and a president who wanted to withdraw American troops would, therefore, concern those on the right in the two Asian countries.

Mr Trump's instincts seem to be to pull back. He told the New York Times: "At some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world."

He said: "It's a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation. At the same time, you know, we're a country that doesn't have money.

"You know, when we did these deals, we were a rich country. We're not a rich country. We were a rich country with a very strong military and tremendous capability in so many ways. We're not anymore."

Sometimes, Mr Trump's language generates headlines. Nobody doubts his oratorical flourish. He was quoted as saying at a rally in Wisconsin that war involving nuclear-armed North Korea would be a terrible thing "but if they do, they do".

"Good luck," he added. "Enjoy yourself, folks."