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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, is pictured in this undated image from the Korean Central News Agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, is pictured in this undated image from the Korean Central News Agency. (Courtesy of KCNA)

SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump opened the door for possible talks with North Korea, saying he would be willing to talk to leader Kim Jong Un. At the same time, the United States was putting its military prowess on display in a reminder that the new administration is keeping all options on the table.

Two supersonic bombers thundered over the divided peninsula on Monday, the Air Force said Tuesday, the latest show of force amid mounting tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Forces Korea also confirmed that a recently deployed advanced anti-missile battery known as THAAD is operational and ready to counter the threat from the North, despite protests by local residents and objections from China.

North Korea’s state-run media fired back in separate reports criticizing THAAD’s deployment and vowing to “speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence.”

Conflicting statements

The developments reflect the dual approach of the Trump administration, which has bounced from blunt threats of military action to suggesting it favors increased diplomatic and economic pressure against Pyongyang.

Experts are divided over whether the conflicting statements may be part of a negotiating tactic meant to keep rivals off guard or ill-conceived musings that could provoke a dangerous miscalculation by the North.

“I think the bottom line intent here is to give the North Koreans pause … in the hopes that they will choose a different path,” said Evans Revere, a former high-ranking diplomat in Seoul.

Trump said he would meet with Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, although he didn’t specify what those would be.

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg News Monday in an interview. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

“Most political people would never say that,” Trump added, “but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”

It was the latest in a series of interviews with Trump to mark the passing of his first 100 days in office.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer later clarified that talks were not imminent.

“We’ve got to see their provocative behavior ratcheted down immediately,” Spicer said. “Clearly, the conditions are not there right now.”

While the North Koreans have engaged in past negotiations with U.S. diplomats and other mediators, leaders of the two countries have never met while in power.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the most senior U.S. diplomat to meet with a North Korean leader when she traveled to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, in 2000.

In addition, Kim Jong Un has never met with a foreign leader or left his country since taking power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011.

Catherine Dill, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., said she doesn’t believe Trump’s comments are part of a grand strategy.

“By most accounts his decision-making is capricious at best, so it is difficult for me to assign intention to the recent remarks,” she said in an email. “Hopefully it is read as an attempt to de-escalate the situation.”

Danger for miscalculation

Trump has vowed a new approach in dealing with the North, saying President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” policy had failed. However, many North Korea observers point out Trump’s emerging policies bear many similarities to the past administration’s reliance on diplomatic pressure and punishing economic sanctions.

Like his predecessors, he has called on China to do more to rein in its communist ally. One key difference is a warning that he’s prepared to use unilateral force and possibly launch a pre-emptive strike.

Trump also has deployed several warships, including the USS Carl Vinson strike group and the guided-missile submarine USS Michigan, as well as the B-1B bombers.

Last week, Trump warned “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.”

Revere, who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he doesn’t believe either side is looking for a military confrontation, which would be devastating for all involved.

“But the rhetoric at its current level of intensity on both sides is, I think, unprecedented,” he said in a telephone interview. “The potential for miscalculation is there. It’s at a much higher level now.”

He also urged the Trump administration to avoid antagonizing its longstanding ally South Korea, saying the president’s recent suggestion that Seoul should pay the $1 billion price tag for the anti-missile battery was “ill-timed and ill-conceived.”

THAAD operational

U.S. officials said THAAD – designed to destroy short- and medium-range missiles at a high altitude – has been ready to shoot down a missile since Sunday, but it will take some months before the entire system is operating full time.

“U.S. Forces Korea confirms the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is operational and has the ability to intercept North Korean missiles and defend (South Korea),” USFK spokesman Col. Rob Manning said in an email.

Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy the anti-missile battery on the peninsula last July as North Korea continued to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions banning it from using ballistic-missile technology. Despite tightened sanctions, Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests and test-fired nearly 30 missiles since last year.

Critics say the allies rushed to install THAAD in the remote area of Seongju despite fierce opposition in order to establish it as a fact on the ground ahead of May 9 presidential elections. The vote is expected to usher in a left-leaning government that has promised to reconsider the decision.

Meanwhile, the 38 North blog said North Korea may be focusing on testing the terminal phase ability of its new missiles to flout systems like THAAD.

John Schilling wrote on the site, which is run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, that a failed missile test over the weekend appeared to be a KN-17 with small fins on the re-entry vehicle.

He said that could be used to target U.S. aircraft carriers, land facilities like air bases or “as a means of evading enemy missile defenses.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

gamel.kim@stripes.comTwitter: @kimgamel

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