(Recasts with comments from Trump, adds White House, Pence quotes, byline, WASHINGTON dateline)
* Trump says would meet N.Korean leader under right circumstances
* White House says conditions ‘not there right now’
* North Korea suggests it will continue nuclear tests
* Pyongyang says it will bolster force “to the maximum”
* Tension high with U.S. aircraft carrier group in the region
By Ayesha Rascoe and Soyoung Kim
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, May 1 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday opened the door to meeting North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, saying he would be honored to meet the young leader under the right circumstances, even as Pyongyang suggested it will continue its nuclear weapons tests.
“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 in an interview. “Under the right circumstances I would meet with him,” he added.
Trump did not say what conditions would need to be met for any such meeting to occur or when it could happen, but the White House later said North Korea would need to clear many conditions before a meeting could be contemplated. “Clearly conditions are not there right now,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
“I don’t see this happening anytime soon,” Spicer added.
Trump, who took office in January, had said during his presidential campaign he would be willing to meet with Kim.
His administration has said since that North Korea must agree to abandon its nuclear program.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the U.N. Security Council that Washington would not negotiate with North Korea. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, earlier on Monday, said Trump had made clear “that the era of strategic patience is over.”
Later on Monday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said in a statement: “The United States remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; however conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume,” adding North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have been high for weeks driven by fears the North might conduct a long-range missile test, or its sixth nuclear test, around the time of the April 15 anniversary of its state founder’s birth.
Early on Monday, North Korea said it will bolster its nuclear force “to the maximum” in a “consecutive and successive way at any moment” in the face of what it calls U.S. aggression and hysteria.
North Korea, technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, regularly threatens to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea and has said it will pursue its nuclear and missile programmes to counter perceived U.S. aggression.
Trump warned in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible , while China said last week the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
In a show of force, the United States has sent the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula to join drills with South Korea to counter a series of threats of destruction from North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
“Now that the U.S. is kicking up the overall racket for sanctions and pressure against the DPRK, pursuant to its new DPRK policy called ‘maximum pressure and engagement’, the DPRK will speed up at the maximum pace the measure for bolstering its nuclear deterrence,” a spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by its official KCNA news agency.
North Korea’s “measures for bolstering the nuclear force to the maximum will be taken in a consecutive and successive way at any moment and any place decided by its supreme leadership,” the spokesman said.
Reclusive North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests and a series of missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council and unilateral resolutions. It has been conducting tests at an unprecedented rate and is believed to have made progress in developing intermediate-range and submarine-launched missiles.
It test-launched a missile on Saturday which Washington and Seoul said was unsuccessful but which nevertheless drew widespread international condemnation.
TIME FOR TALKS ‘OVER’
Trump has stepped up his outreach to allies in Asia over the weekend to discuss the North Korean threat and make sure all are “on the same page” if action is needed, a top White House official said.
As part of that effort, he also reached out to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and invited him to meet at the White House, a move human rights organizations condemned.
Washington is also seeking more help from China, the North’s only major ally, to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development. Unlike the United States, Beijing has pushed for talks first and action later on North Korea.
“The United States has ... negotiated, had talks, waited patiently. All the while we’ve seen the regime in North Korea continue its headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons, and a ballistic missile program. And the president said that’s over,” Pence told CBS News in an interview.
Separately, South Korea said the United States had reaffirmed it would shoulder the cost of deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to counter the North Korean threat, days after Trump said Seoul should pay for the $1 billion battery.
In a telephone call on Sunday, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reassured his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, that the U.S. alliance with South Korea was its top priority in the Asia-Pacific region, the South’s presidential office said.
The THAAD deployment has drawn protests from China, which says the powerful radar that can penetrate its territory will undermine regional security, and from residents of the area in which it is being deployed, worried they will be a target for North Korean missiles.
The THAAD system in South Korea has reached an initial operating capability to defend against North Korean missiles, U.S. officials said on Monday. It would not be fully operational for some months, however, one of them cautioned.