Trump Is First Sitting U.S. Leader to Enter North Korea
Now the president of the United States simply tweets at Kim (who “follows” him on Twitter, naturally) that, hey, he’s swinging through town and would love to meet up! And the next day, with the kind of spontaneity that was surely made possible by intensive staff work, the two men actually do, shaking hands in the Joint Security Area that for the last 66 years has embodied the unresolved hostilities of the Korean War.
The way things are going, Trump probably won’t be the president who finally convinces the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s arsenal remains as formidable today as it was when Trump and Kim held their first summit one year ago, despite North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests. But that doesn’t mean Trump has accomplished nothing. What Sunday’s meeting in the Demilitarized Zone highlighted is that the president has shattered the American taboo of meeting with the head of the Kim regime and established a top-level channel of communication between decades-old enemies—to the point where such a dialogue doesn’t only have ample precedent but is commonplace, even casual. For better or worse, it’s a real legacy.
Crossing the Military Demarcation Line dividing the Koreas, Trump greeted Kim at the iconic row of blue conference buildings. As they huddled at the Freedom House on the southern side of the border, Trump and Kim paid tribute to their “excellent relations” and the “historic moment.”
While Trump’s diplomatic engagement with Kim has produced many firsts and many moments, it has yet to yield any real progress on the core issue of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, including long-range missiles that are potentially capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the United States.
The president has conducted nuclear talks with Kim as though they were a reality-TV show, while often ignoring or distorting the grave underlying realities of the negotiations. Standing at Observation Point Ouellette along the DMZ on Sunday, he declared that “all of the danger went away” after his initial summit with Kim in Singapore, when nothing’s changed in terms of North Korea’s military capabilities. (The military tensions that threatened to devolve into another war on the Korean peninsula in 2017 have undoubtedly subsided, for now at least.)
Trump similarly stated at a press conference before his trip to the DMZ that Barack Obama was “begging for a meeting” with Kim but that the North Korean leader had refused his predecessor’s requests. When I asked Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s top foreign-policy advisers, whether this was in fact the case, he responded, “No. Not at all. Never.”
The most substantive outcome from the quickie summit appears to be breathing new life into working-level negotiations that had been dormant since February, when Trump and Kim’s second summit in Vietnam collapsed over disputes on how to sequence denuclearization and sanctions relief. In seeking to revive the diplomacy, Trump redefined the purpose of presidential visits to the DMZ, which have always been about theatrics and photo-ops but were traditionally intended to signal steely determination to a hostile North Korea. In the throes of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that he was standing at the frontline between the free world and its antithesis. Bill Clinton threatened to “end” North Korea if it ever used nuclear weapons. George W. Bush came to the border shortly after he included North Korea in his “axis of evil,” and Obama arrived as the United States sought to dissuade Pyongyang from launching a long-range rocket. Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, deliberately walked outside during a visit to the Joint Security Area in 2017 because he wanted the North Koreans to “see our resolve in my face.” This was not Trump’s message on Sunday. “Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!” he tweeted as he departed South Korea.