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Analysis

Taking a major PR risk, President Trump shows up at North Korean border

This by no means indicates that the United States and North Korea are anywhere near a denuclearization deal.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump inside the DMZ separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CREDIT: Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump inside the DMZ separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CREDIT: Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump made a bit of history on Sunday when he walked into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The closed meeting, which lasted under an hour, came after President Trump essentially tweeted that he would be in Kim’s neighborhood, hoping he could get a few minutes of the North Korean leader’s time:

He later tweeted the the visit was “long planned,” but Reuters would subsequently report that his meeting with Kim was a “spur-of-the-moment” confab, initiated by his earlier tweet.

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No details are known about the meeting other than the two men acknowledging the stalled talks between their two countries. It is unclear how or if North Korea will negotiate getting rid of its nuclear weapons, what it would get in return, and when.

“We just had a very, very good meeting. We’ll see what can happen,” said President Trump, after the meeting, adding that “speed is not the thing.”

Should the attempt at rapprochement pan out, it could signal a major change in strategy. The president, who first met Kim in Singapore in June 2018 (with little diplomatic groundwork, and lacking an active special envoy for North Korea in place) had rather hastily assumed that the two had agreed to “complete denuclearization” and had gone on to say that North Korea was no longer a threat.

Of the Sunday visit, Kim, who seldom gives public statements, said  he was “surprised” that Trump, who was in Osaka, Japan, at the G20 Summit over the weekend, wanted to meet him.

“This is an expression of his willingness to leave behind the past and work toward a new future,” said Kim, according to Reuters.

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South Korea’s President Moon-Jae-in might have had something to do with the visit as well: The Koreas had embarked on a series of de-escalation steps over a year ago, which included promises of fixing fractured economic ties and investing in a joint industrial zone between the two countries.

But President Trump’s refusal to lift the sanctions which currently prevent that kind of joint economic development left Moon in a tough spot, especially given the extent of the political capital he has sunk in repairing relations between the Koreas.

President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea — a mix of sanctions on North Korean trade and kind words for Kim — had also yielded nothing.

Indeed, things have been frosty between Washington and Pyongyang since February, when the second summit between the two ended early, leaving negotiators at an impasse.

Trump’s team wants North Korea to agree to complete denuclearization, which would require the isolated state to give up its nuclear weapons program as well as its long-range ballistic missiles. North Korean negotiators have not agreed to what “complete denuclearization” even means, and have balked at taking steps toward dismantling elements of the program ahead of receiving some relief from sanctions.

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This step-by-step, reciprocal approach was rejected by President Trump, leading to North Korea resuming a number of troubling activities, from continuing to develop nuclear facilities to testing new weapons.

President Trump has downplayed the significance of these moves, opting to emphasize North Korea’s potential (owing to its shared borders with China and South Korea) and continuing to praise Kim as a leader who “totally gets it.”

The two men have exchanged insults over the past year or two, with Trump calling Kim “little rocket man” and Kim firing back, calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”