SEOUL—Kim Jong Un would have to be declared the easy winner Sunday from his third meeting with President Donald Trump, this one in the dramatic setting of the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that is the border between North and South Korea.
In an atmosphere of mounting excitement, Trump clapped Kim on the shoulder as they shook hands exactly on the North-South line. The greetings exchanged between them seemed portentous, laden with hope that this time, perhaps, the yearning for reconciliation would survive the usual recriminations and intimidation.
“Nobody had expected this moment,” said Trump.
“It’s significant,” said Kim, talking in Korean, an interpreter at his side. “We want to bring an end to this unpleasant past and create a new future.”
It was not just that Trump met Kim in the truce village of Panmunjom, or for a few seconds stepped across the line into North Korea, then made his way with Kim through besieging cameramen and security people on the southern side to Freedom House for a extended meeting with the North Korean leader. If Trump was able to proclaim the gesture “a very historic moment,” it was there behind closed doors that he and Kim got down to serious talking. Clearly, Kim had now recovered from the humiliation of the aborted summit with Trump in Hanoi at the end of February.
Making up for the debacle in Hanoi, Kim was able on the basis of his talk with Trump at the DMZ to look forward to new talks in which he is sure to go on demanding the deal he wants with the U.S. Trump came out of that extended conversation with Kim in Freedom House, hidden from the pervasive cameras and mics of the media, saying that he and Kim had “agreed to have teams set up” to return to talks that had simply not been happening since Hanoi.
If the two said a word on Sunday, however, about “denuclearization” as promised during their first summit in Singapore in June of last year, Trump was not talking about it.
Indeed, there was no mention of U.S. demands for shutting down the North’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon 60 miles north of Pyongyang or for a full accounting of where the North is hiding all those other facilities for making nuclear weapons and missiles. Nor, apparently, was anything said about lesser issues, including return of more remains of those missing in action from the Korean War.
It was all “classic Trump, a made-for-television moment designed to showcase Trump's relationship with a brutal dictator, but on closer inspection, a progress-free event,” said Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat here. “The only way Trump was able to secure a North Korean agreement to resume working-level denuclearization talks was by agreeing to meet Kim personally and by stepping across the military demarcation line into North Korea, an act that gave Kim considerable legitimacy and "face."
When or if talks resume, said Revere, “the North Koreans will be as firmly committed to the preservation of their nuclear weapons program as they were in Hanoi, and as determined to wring concessions from a tractable U.S. president as they were in Singapore.”
Nonetheless, by his own account of what he called “a very productive meeting,” Trump once again “outlined the tremendous prosperity” that would befall North Korea “when this whole thing gets settled.” In other words, if Kim would just get rid of his nukes or missiles, he could be sure of massive rewards for an economy hobbled by sanctions imposed after missile-and-nuclear tests last staged in 2017.
The hope is the economic bait will outweigh the perceived need for a nuclear program. “Kim will face increasing domestic expectations for economic growth,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University here, “but benefiting from international trade will require denuclearization and rule of law. “
If Kim managed to make up from the tremendous loss of face inflicted by Trump’s walkout from his summit in Hanoi, Trump was also clearly a winner as well. A day after the president had tweeted the idea of seeing Kim while in Korea to meeting Moon, the burst of publicity surrounding the whole occasion enabled him yet again to lay claim to have come up with the solution to North Korea.
“When I came into office, it was a fiery mess,” he said at least twice. “Nothing was happening. In two and a half years we have had peace.” In fact, he declared, standing beside South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in before they flew up to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas for the meeting with Kim, if Barack Obama had still been president, “we would have been at war with North Korea.”
The fact that Trump, during his first year as president, had threatened the North with “fire and fury” and referred to Kim as “little rocket man” was all forgotten in the sense of triumph surrounding the occasion.
Moon appeared overjoyed by Trump’s seemingly spontaneous decision the day before to suggest a meeting with Kim, but he was the odd man out in the interplay between Trump and Kim. Left outside as Trump and Kim talked privately in Freedom House, he could still take credit for having opened up dialog with North Korea with their first summit in the same setting of the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom within the demilitarized zone about 40 miles north of Seoul.
Moon was full of praise for Trump as they announced that the meeting with Kim was on after their own summit in the Blue House, the South Korean presidential complex. “I hope President Trump will be able to go down in history as the president who has achieved peace on the Korean peninsula,” he said. No way, he made clear, did dialog with the North compromise the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.
Rather, said Moon, “today our leaders have agreed to further expand the Korea-U.S. alliance.” Together the new policies of the U.S. and Korea “can achieve common ground,” he maintained. “President Trump and I will not forget the history and spirit of our alliance. President Trump is the maker of peace on the Korean peninsula. We would hope for a milestone in the history of our alliance.”
For Trump, the meeting with Kim all rested on the personal chemistry, the bond formed between them at the Singapore summit. “We have developed a very good relationship. He understands me, and maybe I understand him.”
Trump was at pains, before and after seeing Kim, to defend the record of his previous two summits even though North Korea has done nothing to get rid of its nuclear program—and is assumed to have added several warheads to the 60 or so that it’s believed to have fabricated so far.
“We’ve made tremendous strides,” he said. “Only the fake news says we haven’t.”
Standing with an American army officer at an observation post looming south of the North-South line, he said “you have 35 million people within range of their weapons.” He did not say, of course, that hundreds of North Korean artillery pieces remain in place behind the hills above the DMZ—not a topic of consideration in demands for the North to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction including, biological, chemical and nuclear.
The overriding sense was that the meeting, an extended photo-op, might be seen as representing the aspiration for a lasting deal with North Korea—but with no clue as to how to bring it about.
Kim was really the winner here having photo evidence to flash around that he is a distinguished world leader,” said Stephen Tharp, retired U.S. army officer who spent much time during his career for meetings at Panmunjom. “It was easy for Kim to accept this mini-summit since there wouldn’t be any expectations for substantive discussions and hence no chance to fail in a meeting.”
“It is very symbolic,” said Joseph Yun, the former U.S. envoy to North Korea, on duty as a commentator for CNN. “At a minimum the meeting has to kick off a major process, and if it doesn’t, I will be very disappointed.”
Yun’s successor, Stephen Biegun, was on hand, standing behind Trump as he talked of Kim agreeing to setting up “new teams” to discuss a real deal. Biegun’s top priority will be to get working-level talks going—a process that may or may not lead to agreement.
Whatever happens, for Trump the meeting was a moment of glory, a success that he’s sure to claim even if the North never comes to terms on denuclearization. “That was very quick notice, and I want to thank you,” he told Kim right away after shaking hands. “We met and liked each other from day one.”