OSAKA/TOKYO - Sixty-six years after the Korean War was halted in an armistice, U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday became the first sitting American leader to set foot on North Korean soil when he met dictator Kim Jong Un for the third time in just over a year.
Trump and Kim met at the heavily fortified truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, where Trump shook hands with the young leader at the military demarcation line and crossed into the North in a once-unthinkable display that was rich in symbolism.
U.S. talks with the North over its nuclear weapons program had been on ice since the last Kim-Trump summit, in February in Hanoi, collapsed amid major differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.
However, Sunday’s historic meeting — which morphed from a mere handshake and greeting, as Trump initially predicted, into a more-than-50-minute talk — appeared to inject some much-needed momentum into the stalled talks.
Speaking after those talks, the U.S. president, joined by South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, called the meeting “a great, historic day” and said both sides would designate working-level teams to “work out the details” as they seek a “comprehensive deal” on denuclearization.
“Over the next two to three weeks the teams are going to start working to try to see if they can do something,” Trump said.
“Very big stuff, very complicated, but not as complicated as people think,” Trump said, referring to the denuclearization talks.
Earlier, after crossing the border into the North and returning back to the South with Kim, Trump highlighted the historic move.
“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” Trump said. “A lot of progress has been made.”
But before crossing, a beaming Kim shook Trump’s hand, saying that it had been good to see the U.S. president again.
“I never expected to see you at this place,” Kim said, praising Trump as “courageous” and thanking him for making the meeting happen.
In one of the more surprising developments after returning to the South’s side, Trump even suggested that the two leaders could follow up the DMZ meeting with a visit by Kim to the White House at some point.
Asked later to confirm if he had, in fact, extended the invitation to Kim, Trump said he had.
“I did, and at some point, it will all happen,” he said. “We have a ways to go yet, but we will see.”
If realized, such a visit would be the first ever by a North Korean leader to the United States.
For his part, Kim also struck an optimistic note that the seemingly impromptu meeting had been effective in kick-starting the stalled nuclear talks.
“I believe this (meeting) will have a positive influence in all our discussions in the future,” the North Korean leader said. “President Trump and myself, we have an excellent relationship. If it wasn’t for that relationship, we wouldn’t have been able to make this sudden meeting possible.
“I hope it can be the foundation for better things in the future,” he added. “It’s a mysterious force that allows us to overcome many difficulties.”
Experts said that the resumption of working-level talks was a positive development, but noted that the meeting appeared to be what it was supposed to be: a meeting for the sake of having a meeting.
“Both leaders stood to gain something by highlighting their personal relationship and commitment to diplomacy for their respective domestic audiences and the international community, and that remains the main outcome we can see,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues.
Asked if the duration of the bilateral discussions between Kim and Trump was an important signal, Oba played down the significance.
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions based on the length of the meeting,” he said. “I have seen plenty of long diplomatic meetings that were long because the people involved had a strong personal relationship, or sometimes even because the negotiators wanted to give the impression they were working hard and really going at it.”
At a news conference earlier Sunday in Seoul, Trump had battled with reporters, blasting them for what he claimed was unfair coverage of developments with North Korea under his administration.
Asked if Kim “deserves this moment” at a time when progress on nuclear talks remains scant, the U.S. leader tore into the media, saying it was “insulting” to question the results of his strategy.
“We’ve made tremendous strides,” he said.
Still, David Kim, a research analyst with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said there was much more work ahead, and that talks between teams led on the U.S. side by the Stephen Biegun, the country’s top envoy to the North and his as-of-yet unidentified counterpart, were crucial.
“Both sides should begin by reaffirming their commitment to denuclearization and to the terms and scope of what that means,” Kim, a former U.S. State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official, said. “Second, we need to resume working-level negotiations now that another top-down interaction has occurred. This starts by North Korea clarifying Biegun’s counterpart.
“Lastly,” Kim added, “it’s important to acknowledge South Korea and China’s importance. And Japan’s down the road.”
Ahead of the meeting, Trump and Moon visited Observation Point Ouellette, a United Nations-commanded point along the border from where the no-man’s land between the North and South can be seen.
Wearing a suit and a red tie — but notably no helmet or visible flak jacket — Trump and Moon listened to explanations by the commander of troops there.
“There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore,” Trump said of his first summit with Kim in June 2018. After that, “all of the danger went away,” he said.
The whirlwind of diplomacy began just a day earlier, when the mercurial Trump took to Twitter to invite Kim to meet him at the DMZ during a previously planned visit there.
“If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” Trump tweeted.
Kim’s regime responded with an unusually quick reply in state-run media by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui — a fluent English speaker and increasingly powerful official known for her close ties to the young North Korean leader.
In recent weeks, Trump and Kim have exchanged correspondence, with Trump boasting of a “beautiful” letter he received on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the pair’s first summit in Singapore and Kim making the rare announcement that he, too, had received an “excellent” letter from Trump.
The meeting was the third encounter between Trump and Kim after the Singapore and Hanoi summits, and Sunday’s trip to the DMZ was his first to the area. On a previous visit to South Korea in November 2017, he pushed for a DMZ trip with Moon by helicopter, but it was canceled due to bad weather.