It is always symbolic for a visiting US president to go to the inter-Korean border which was fortified at the end of the Korean War in which American troops fought alongside South Korean soldiers against North Korean and Chinese forces. The most common message the US leaders sent out there was about the South Korea-US alliance and maintaining a strong deterrence.
Then it is historic for a US leader to meet the leader of North Korea in the demilitarized zone, which was created by an armistice agreement signed by the US-led UN command on one side and North Korea and China on the other to stop the war in 1953. This time, the American leader’s message may well be more focused on reconciliation and peace than deterrence.
Indeed, Sunday’s landmark meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the border village of Panmunjom should raise hopes for genuine reconciliation between the two Cold War adversaries and more importantly, complete denuclearization of the North Korean regime.
But the way the two main actors -- Trump and Kim -- set up their surprise meeting should raise questions about their real intent. One cannot help but suspect that both were only interested in a big publicity stunt for their respective political benefits.
Normally, a meeting between top leaders should be preceded by preparations for months and weeks. Such preparation is more important when there are sensitive and complex issues to be discussed between the leaders. There is no doubt the US-North Korea denuclearization talks, deadlocked since the failure of the second Trump-Kim meeting four months ago, is one such hard-to-tackle issue.
Nonetheless, Trump and Kim, instead of taking the normal path for their third meeting that should be a real breakthrough to the nuclear impasse, made the visit to the border area and their meeting into a surprise show.
It is simply ridiculous that there was no official announcement on the details of Trump’s visit to the border area -- including whether he will meet Kim -- until shortly before his departure for the short helicopter trip to the border area from Seoul. By that time, most details of the meeting must have been arranged.
As Trump mentioned during his meeting with Moon at Cheong Wa Dae, there could have been security reasons and last-minute discussions, but what seems evident is that all the concerned parties -- Trump, Kim and even Moon -- must have sought to maximize the dramatic effects of Trump’s visit to the DMZ.
The whole drama began when Trump, who had ruled out the possibility of meeting Kim before leaving Washington, tweeted on Saturday morning in Osaka, Japan, where he was attending the annual G-20 meeting that he could meet him at the “Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”
In just about five hours, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui issued a statement welcoming Trump’s proposal. She said that a meeting on the inter-Korean border would serve as “another meaningful occasion in further deepening the personal relations between the two leaders and advancing bilateral relations.”
Such a quick response raised the possibility that the two leaders had already discussed the idea of meeting each other on the occasion of Trump’s visit to South Korea on his way back home from the G-20 summit. But Kim denied such a speculation, telling reporters that he too was surprised by the proposal and that the meeting could not have taken place without mutual trust between the two.
Trump might have thought that the scene of him meeting Kim at such a symbolic place as Panmunjom could help strengthen his image as a man in charge of the North Korean nuclear issue and peace. In fact, Trump, who launched his re-election campaign last month, bragged about being the first US president to manage the nuclear issue well. “Frankly, if I didn’t become president, you’d be having a war right now with North Korea,” he said in Osaka. He reiterated his success in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis and reducing the fear of war on the peninsula in several occasions Sunday.
True, tensions over the North Korean nuclear crisis have been mitigated by the two meetings between Trump and Kim, and the three meetings between Moon and Kim.
It really is historic for a US leader and a North Korean leader to meet each other at the inter-Korean border. Trump also made history by walking into the northern side, becoming the first serving US president to set his feet in the North. The historic scene peaked when the two met with Moon who was waiting in the southern side of the truce village.
For all the historic significance of the event, it would remain another showy event unless it leads to working-level denuclearization talks Trump and Kim agreed during their latest meeting at Panmunjom. What the world expect to see from Trump and Kim is real progress in the disarmament talks, not theatrical handshakes and photo opportunities.