By Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in may present a unified front over North Korea at the White House on Thursday and Friday, but tension over trade could puncture their effort to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea relationship.
Moon, making his first trip to the United States since becoming his country's leader, will join Trump and his wife, Melania, for dinner in the White House State Dining Room Thursday night ahead of meetings on Friday that are expected to touch on North Korea's nuclear program, China's role in the region and the U.S. military's THAAD missile defense system.
Both men have an interest in building a strong relationship.
Moon wants to form a friendship with the former New York businessman and find common ground on ways to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Trump wants to build ties with an important leader in the region as he grows frustrated with Beijing's failure to rein in Pyongyang, despite his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"If President Trump and I make strong personal ties of friendship and trust and if we were to try to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue on the basis of these personal ties, then I believe we will be able to achieve the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue,” Moon told Reuters last week.
Trade could affect that relationship-building process.
In an interview with Reuters in April, Trump called the five-year-old KORUS trade pact between the United States and South Korea "horrible" and "unacceptable" and said he would either renegotiate or terminate it.
"I think they’ll have a friendly and frank discussion about the trade relationship," a White House official told reporters on Wednesday, noting concerns about barriers to U.S. auto sales and surplus Chinese steel that arrives in the United States via South Korea.
The U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since KORUS took effect in 2012, from $13.2 billion in 2011 to $27.7 billion in 2016. It was forecast to boost U.S. exports by $10 billion a year, but they were $3 billion lower in 2016 than in 2011.
During remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Moon said unfair trade practices would be eradicated and factors that limited competition, such as market entry barriers and price regulations, would be "reevaluated" under his administration.
Another potential sticking point in their talks could revolve around the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that the United States deployed in South Korea in March.
Moon, who has advocated a more moderate approach toward Pyongyang, expressed shock late last month upon learning that four more launchers for the controversial system had been brought into the country. He ordered a probe after his Defense Ministry failed to inform him of the move.
The system, whose installation irritated China, is meant to counter the threat from North Korea's missile program. The White House said it did not expect THAAD to be a major point of conversation.
Despite potential areas of disagreement, the two leaders are expected to express common resolve over threats from North Korea.
"The similarities in our approaches are already evident," the White House official said, noting that both men had expressed willingness to engage with Pyongyang under the right conditions. "Even once the conditions may present themselves, to enter into dialogue we must maintain and actually increase pressure on North Korea. That’s President Moon’s approach; it’s President Trump’s approach."
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler)