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Trump may skip DMZ for Humphreys instead

Oct 25,2017
U.S. President Donald Trump was invited by President Moon Jae-in to visit the Camp Humphreys military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, during his trip to Korea next month, according to the White House.

If he does, Trump is not likely to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the heavily-armed narrow strip of land separating the two Koreas, since time constraints would likely not permit the president go visit both locations, a senior White House official briefed reporters in Washington Monday.

The U.S. president is scheduled to speak with troops at Camp Humphreys, an American base located south of Seoul, during his 12-day trip to the Asia region next month.

In July, the Eighth U.S. Army launched its new headquarters at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek after relocating from Yongsan in central Seoul, its base since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Camp Humphreys is the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest army garrison overseas. The official described Camp Humphreys as a “great example of burden-sharing,” an issue that Trump has emphasized to U.S. allies since his campaign days.

There have been reports of concern among State Department officials that Trump visiting the DMZ, which has been a symbolic gesture made by most U.S. presidents, could further inflame tensions with the North.

There were also safety concerns about such a visit and concerns in the South Korean government that Trump might do something provocative at the DMZ.

The White House official downplayed the significance of a visit to the DMZ and underplayed the concern of safety, saying that Trump’s personal “security is not the concern” in determining whether the president will visit the tense inter-Korean border.

Every U.S. president has visited the DMZ since Ronald Reagan did in 1983, calling it the “front lines of freedom,” with the exception of George H.W. Bush, who made a trip while serving as vice president.

Previously, Dwight Eisenhower, as president-elect, visited the border in December 1952 in the midst of the Korean War.

In March 2012, President Barack Obama visited the border, which he called “freedom’s frontier,” looking through binoculars toward the North from Observation Post Ouellette, some 100 days after young leader Kim Jong-un came into power following the death of his father the previous December.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the DMZ last April and declared that the “era of strategic patience is over” with North Korea.

The Washington Post quoted the White House official as saying that Trump not visiting the DMZ - which would normally be considered an opportunity to send a strong signal on the North Korea issue - doesn’t necessarily compromise his message to Pyongyang.

“The message is that we are guests during a state visit of President Moon Jae-in,” said the official. “I don’t think this sends a message in a negative way.”

Trump has used more bellicose rhetoric on the North than any of his predecessors, threatening to unleash “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy” the country.

The official was quoted as saying, “At every turn, the U.S. has been cheated, the world has been tricked, the UN has been humiliated” over the past 25 years by Pyongyang, adding that the administration has “made a good-faith effort to signal to North Korea that our door was open to dialogue,” which was answered with intercontinental ballistic missile tests, the sixth nuclear test and the death of an American hostage, referring to Otto Warmbier.

The official added that a failure to confront and deter the North Korean threat will lead to “a much darker era,” and that Trump’s rhetoric and action had “led to the most substantial shift and progress within the international community in confronting this threat.”

Trump kicks off the trip in Hawaii on Nov. 3, and will visit Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, his first tour of the Asia region since he took office and the longest continuous one as well.

He will be in Korea on Nov. 7 and 8 for a state visit.

“To avoid a chance of bumbling into war, it would be better that he did not go, and if he does go, he should be tightly scripted,” North Korea expert and journalist Blaine Harden told CNN Monday, advising against Trump visiting the DMZ.

“He makes threats that are destabilizing for the region. Since the whole idea of the president’s visit is to try to find a diplomatic solution it would probably be best not to risk something that would make the situation worse.”

But Evan Medeiros, former senior Asia director at the National Security Council under the Obama administration, suggested that the costs of not visiting the DMZ could be greater than the risk of going, pointing out that President Trump “needs to be crystal clear” about the U.S. position on North Korea, the Washington Post reported last week.

In an address to the South Korean National Assembly, Trump is expected to underscore the “enduring alliance and friendship” between the two countries and also call upon the international community to maximize pressure on Pyongyang.

He is also scheduled to hold bilateral talks with Moon and pay respects to fallen soldiers at the National Cemetery in what the White House official describes as a “very special” visit.

“Damage control is important when President Trump visits,” Kim Joon-hyung, international studies professor at the Handong Global University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily, indicating a presidential visit to the DMZ is not necessary.

“We have to hope President Trump doesn’t say anything inflammatory, and nothing happens between the United States and North Korea while he is here.”

Trump is the first foreign head of state to visit Seoul since Moon took office in May and also the first American president to make a state visit to Korea in 25 years, the highest level of protocol offered to foreign leaders.

In his remarks after a joint meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Monday at the White House, Trump emphasized an “unwavering commitment to countering the North Korean threat and promoting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

Trump is expected to pressure China to do more to rein in North Korea during the trip to Asia, and also address barriers that American companies face in order to gain access to the Chinese market.

The White House official said Washington would like to see China “do things bilaterally” that “might even go beyond things” that are mandated under UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning the North.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]