SEOUL – In a made-for-television event with more symbolism that substance, President Donald Trump met Sunday with Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and became the first U.S. president to step onto North Korean territory.
“I was proud to step over the line,” Trump told Kim after walking him on the North Korean side of the border, claiming “a lot of progress has been made” in the wake of their two past summits in Singapore and Vietnam.
“We met and we liked each other from Day One,” Trump said of the North Korean leader.
Kim told Trump that “I did not expect to see you at this place,” before reminding him he would the first U.S. president to cross into North Korea. Later questioned by American reporters, Kim lauded Trump for a “determined and courageous visit” designed to “bring an end to the unpleasant past.”
Trump also invited Kim to visit the United States; no word on whether he accepted.
Trump and Kim later held a private meeting in a nearby building.
Trump had announced he would hold a meeting with Kim during a brief news conference in Seoul with South Korea President Moon Jae-in.
Moon praised the meeting as a “handshake for peace.”
Trump had said it would be a very short meeting with Kim – “(I’ll) just shake hands quickly and say hello” – and would not necessarily mean he will hold a third summit with the North Korean dictator. “It’s just a step,” he said. “It might be an important step, or it might not.”
The DMZ includes the border between North and South Korea, and no U.S. president has ever stepped over that line. Trump had said earlier he would have “no problem” becoming the first U.S. president to actually set foot in North Korean territory, and he did just that.
Before the brief chat with Kim, Trump received a traditional tour of the DMZ and how American and Korean forces guard the world’s most heavily fortified nation.
Critics said Kim has made no progress toward ending his nuclear weapons programs, even after two summit meetings with Trump, and should not be rewarded with the prestige of another presidential meeting.
Trump dismissed the criticism, saying that “we’re doing well” with North Korea. “Let’s see what happens.”
Trump, who extended his invitation to Kim Saturday on Twitter, cast the encounter with Kim as “just a quick hello,” not a full-on summit to negotiate the ending of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.
“We won’t call it a summit,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll call it a handshake, if it does happen.”
The two leaders have held summits in Singapore and Vietnam but have been unable to strike a deal in which North Korea junks its nuclear weapons facilities in exchange for reductions of economic sanctions.
Before his DMZ visit, Trump met with South Korean business leaders and later huddled Moon, the president who is pushing for a third summit between Trump and Kim to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Before taking Air Force One back to the U.S., Trump on Sunday will speak to U.S. troops stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
Trump arrived in Seoul after attending the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. While there, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to re-start talks on a new trade agreement that could end the economically damaging trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
The last time Trump and Kim met, they broke off negotiations after a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. That meeting failed to yield progress toward an agreement in which North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.
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Kim and the North Koreans said they would not submit a specific plan to dismantle nuclear weapons sites until the U.S. removes economic sanctions; Trump and the U.S. said they wouldn’t remove sanctions until Kim and the North Koreans put up a denuclearization plan.
Early in his term, Trump mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it ever made a move to use nuclear weapons.
As the North Koreans made overtures for settlement talks, Trump changed his tune toward Kim. In the wake of the summits, first in Singapore and then in Vietnam, Trump now casts Kim as someone with whom he can make a deal.
Trump’s faith is in contrast to foreign policy analysts and some aides who believe Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons, the key to control of his regime.
“We get along,” Trump said of Kim before his trip to Seoul.
In his remarks to the business leaders in Seoul, Trump criticized predecessor Barack Obama for his approach to North Korea. The current president claimed, without evidence, that his policy has avoided war with Kim’s government.
However informal, many foreign analysts see a potential Trump-Kim get-together as a prelude to a third summit.
Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies with the Center for the National Interest, said the two leaders can’t afford to renew the kinds of threats they made little more than two years ago.
“There will be a reset in relations, and that is a win for both leaders,” Kazianis said. “Both men have too much to lose now if they were to go back to the dark days of ‘fire and fury.’ A deal will take time to come together, but it will come together.”
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst with the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said an impromptu Trump-Kim meeting would do little to advance denuclearization.
That requires “sustained working-level negotiations” among experienced negotiators, she said, not “another photo-opp” with a “rights-abusing, illegal nuclear weapons-possessing North Korean dictator.”
Trump had planned to visit the Demilitarized Zone during a trip to South Korea in 2017, but bad weather forced him to cancel.
Visiting the DMZ, one of the world’s most heavily guarded areas, has become a near rite of passage for American leaders.
Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has toured the area except for George H.W. Bush, and he went when he was vice president.
In the run-up to his visit, Trump made questionable assertions about his North Korea policy.
At one point, Trump said previous presidents had sought meetings with Kim, but couldn’t get one. Not so. Previous presidents refused to grant Kim a meeting because of the regime’s behavior and North Korea’s refusal to make any sort of commitment to forgo nuclear weapons.
“Trump is lying,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy aide during Obama’s eight years in office. “Obama never sought a meeting with Kim Jong Un. Foreign policy isn’t reality television it’s reality.”
Rhodes later added: “Photo ops don’t get rid of nuclear weapons, carefully negotiated agreements do.”
Trump also said he came up with the idea of inviting Kim to the DMZ over the weekend, but there is evidence to contrary.
The Hill newspaper reported that Trump told its reporters on Monday that he would be visiting the DMZ and that he “might” meet with Kim. The Hill said it “delayed publishing news of the trip earlier in the week at the request of the White House, which cited security concerns about publicizing the president’s plans that far in advance.”
The significance of the latest Trump-Kim meeting will have to be measured later.
Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, tweeted that if the Trump-Kim handshake “eventually leads to complete and verifiable North Korean denuclearization, today will remembered as a historic day.”
He added: “And if it doesn’t, it will be remembered as a photo op stunt. High stakes.”