Expert: Trump should avoid 'bumbling into war' in Korean DMZ_00040406.jpg
Expert: Trump should avoid 'bumbling into war' in Korean DMZ
05:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The White House cited scheduling conflicts in an already-jammed itinerary

"We don't think it sends any message either way," a senior White House official said

Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump will most likely forgo a visit to the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea when he visits Asia next month, a senior White House official said Monday, bypassing what has been a symbolic opportunity for US commanders in chief to stare into the Hermit Kingdom.

Citing scheduling conflicts in an already-jammed itinerary, the official did not rule out entirely a visit to the demilitarized zone. But speaking to reporters, the official downplayed the importance of stopping at the DMZ, which the past three presidents have visited during trips to South Korea.

“We don’t think it sends any message either way,” the official said.

Trump has employed increasingly volatile rhetoric in his comments about North Korea, warning to rain “fire and fury” on the regime if it continued threatening to the United States. Since then, the North has conducted a massive underground nuclear test and launched several ballistic missiles.

While some members of Trump’s administration have advocated talks with the North Koreans, Trump has downplayed the potential for effective diplomacy. He and his advisers have warned that no options – including military ones – are off the table.

Past presidents, and even some members of Trump’s own administration, have used visits to the DMZ to demonstrate resolve against North Korea. But national security experts have cautioned that Trump’s belligerent language about the situation has ratcheted up tensions to unprecedented levels, rendering a DMZ visit overly provocative.

The border zone, 2.5 miles wide and 150 miles long, has become something of a tourist destination in South Korea, though visits from high-ranking officials can still prompt jitters among the guards and servicemen posted on either side.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited in March, North Korean soldiers on the other side got close enough to film him as he toured the area. Vice President Mike Pence also visited the border during a visit to Asia in April.

When US presidents arrive, they are typically photographed peering through a large set of binoculars into North Korea, a metaphorical staring-down of an enemy that has plagued the last several administrations.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all visited the DMZ during their tenures.

Trump, however, has accepted an invitation to visit the United States Army Garrison-Humphreys south of Seoul to speak to American troops. The senior White House official said it would be difficult to squeeze in a visit to the DMZ given the time he’s committed to visiting the US military installation.

While in South Korea for a state visit, Trump will also meet with President Moon Jae-in and address the country’s national assembly.

It’s one of several stops on Trump’s nine-day maiden voyage to Asia, which will also take him to Tokyo; Beijing; Hanoi and Da Nang, Vietnam; and Manila. North Korea will loom over each stop.

In Japan and China, Trump hopes to rally support behind his strategy of isolating North Korea economically. In both countries he’ll find newly emboldened leaders, fresh from key political victories, from whom he hopes to extract greater cooperation in combating Pyongyang.

The US wants China to fully implement a punishing set of economic sanctions it agreed to at the United Nations Security Council, which would choke off the country from its top economic patron.

The White House official, who was briefing reporters ahead of Trump’s trip, said failing to adequately confront North Korea would lead to a “much darker era” on the continent.

For now, however, the administration is not taking up an offer from ex-President Jimmy Carter to act as a peace envoy after the 39th commander in chief raised the prospect of such an assignment in an interview.

“We’re open to having conversations with anyone who has great ideas for how to achieve resolution to this terrible crisis,” the official said, adding that while the White House respects Carter’s “commitment to peace,” there were no further discussions planned after an initial conversation between the former leader and Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

“I would go, yes,” Carter, 93, told The New York Times when asked if he would travel to North Korea on behalf of the administration.

“I told him that I was available if they ever need me,” Carter said of his conversation with McMaster.