A year after he derided North Korea’s dictator as “Rocket Man,” President Trump expressed lavish praise for Kim Jong Un on Monday as the president prepared to use his second United Nations address to denounce what an aide called Iran’s “global torrent of destructive activity.”
In New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, Trump told reporters he expected to meet Kim again as a follow-up to their June 12 summit in Singapore, a meeting that Trump later claimed had produced a promise from Pyongyang to begin the process of denuclearization.
“Chairman Kim has been terrific,” Trump said Monday, insisting North Korea is “making tremendous progress.”
The progress is difficult to see. To all appearances, negotiations have stalled and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, has found no evidence that Pyongyang has dismantled any nuclear infrastructure or prepared an inventory of its arsenal, the first steps toward denuclearization. U.S. officials have not challenged that assessment.
After attending a counter-narcotics conference Monday morning, Trump held bilateral meetings in a suite at the Lotte Palace Hotel in midtown Manhattan. During the first, he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in celebrated the signing of a new trade agreement, marking the first time Trump has inked a bilateral trade deal with another country since taking office.
Trump called the agreement a “historic milestone” although the changes agreed upon — doubling the number of U.S. automobiles that can be sold in South Korea and keeping a tariff on South Korean steel in place through 2041 — were largely cosmetic, given that a broader renegotiation would have required approval from Congress.
“This agreement will reduce bureaucracy and increase prosperity in both of our countries,” Trump said.
Trump and his aides made clear he will focus his ire on Iran this week, and there were signs he is backing down from his demands for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, a position that had put him at odds with his national security team.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, said the administration is planning to keep troops in Syria until Iran withdraws its own forces from the country, outlining a strategy shift that could leave U.S. forces on the ground there indefinitely.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton told the Associated Press.
Later Monday, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis said at the Pentagon that U.S. troops could stay in Syria after Islamic State is routed, the administration’s goal in the past. He said their mission would be to train local forces and to prevent the terrorist group from regaining a foothold.
Mattis did not say U.S. troops would stay until Iran withdrew its own forces, but he said there was “no daylight” between him and Bolton.
“Part of this overarching problem is we have to address Iran,” Mattis said. “Everywhere you go in the Middle East, where there is instability, you find Iran.”
U.S. policy until now called for withdrawing the 2,500 American troops once they and local militias in eastern Syria had defeated the last remnants of Islamic State, which appears near. That goal was aimed at mollifying Trump, who declared last April that he wanted to pull out of Syria as soon as possible.
Bolton and his allies in the administration have pushed to extend the U.S. military mission to put pressure on Tehran, which has sent troops and supported militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. Iran also has stepped up its longstanding military support to Hezbollah, the anti-Israeli militant group in Lebanon.
The decision to keep U.S. troops in Syria is also aimed at preventing Russia, which has a naval base in Syria, from gaining more of a foothold there.
Speaking at a separate news conference, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Trump would use his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday to deliver “well-deserved strong words for the Iranian regime.”
He called it “among the worst violators” of U.N. Security Council resolutions, “if not the absolute worst in the world,” adding that Trump will “call on every country to join our pressure campaign in order to thwart Iran’s global torrent of destructive activity.”
The United States has “engaged in significant activity that has begun to counter the Iranian threat,” Pompeo said. “Today they remain the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. It is our fervent effort to make sure that that not remain the case.”
Pompeo supported Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the landmark Iran nuclear deal that curtailed Tehran’s nuclear abilities. Trump said the accord had failed, but the five other signatories — Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — continue to support it.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told reporters that Trump would repeat a theme he struck in his first General Assembly address and that has underpinned much of his foreign policy decisions: American sovereignty as the motivating force for U.S. military, economic and strategic actions overseas.
“The United States is determined to be involved in multilateral [organizations] … where we see it, not where it infringes on the American people,” Haley said.
In recent months, the Trump administration has cut funds for U.N. agencies dealing with refugees and peacekeeping, withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council and announced plans to slash the number of refugees who will be allowed to settle in the United States.
Some White House aides expressed cautious optimism that Trump would stick to his written script on Tuesday. They recalled last year’s speech, when Trump’s most memorable and controversial statement — threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea” and mocking Kim as “Rocket Man” — was not part of his prepared remarks.
Haley acknowledged that Trump’s debut last year was rocky, noting the administration was “trying to figure what the U.S. presence was going to be.”
This year, she said, Trump will lead his first Security Council meeting, Pompeo would attend his first Security Council session, and Vice President Mike Pence would attend an event on Venezuela.
“This year, we’re here with a bang,” she said.
Times staff writer David S. Cloud reported from Washington.