The sight of a US president shaking hands with a North Korean leader at the border in Panmunjom and then briefly stepping into North Korea would have been unimaginable just one year ago. With this symbolic gesture, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un made history Sunday.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in joined the two leaders, making it the fourth time he has met Kim Jong-un. In a meeting that followed, Trump and Kim agreed to restart negotiations between the two countries.
Reaction to the hastily arranged meeting revealed an interesting trend that has been developing since the ice began thawing early in 2018. South Korean conservatives do not trust Moon and believe that negotiations with North Korea are futile. Likewise, US liberals do not trust Trump and believe he is turning diplomacy with North Korea into a reality show. The thread running through both criticisms is a lack of trust in the sitting president.
On the other side, South Korean liberals trust Moon and believe that engagement with North Korea will lead to peace and eventual reunification. They are not fans of Trump but are willing to work with him to move engagement along. US conservatives are more circumspect, but supporters in Trump’s base, not all of whom are conservative, remain firmly behind him. Hawkish neocons, meanwhile, are more critical and quietly await a chance to push a hard line with North Korea.
Strong emotional feelings toward Moon and Trump mean that the majority of the people in both countries look at relations with North Korea based on their feelings about their leaders. Objectivity is taken as a sign of weakness, and dispassionate analysis is difficult to find. This will continue as long as Moon and Trump are in office.
The meeting in Panmunjom was certainly a big show that helped all three leaders at home politically. Trump needs to look presidential to help his campaign for reelection. Moon needs to shore up his popularity before next year’s National Assembly elections. And Kim needs photos with Trump to enhance his image as a leader at home. For both Trump and Kim, the show in Panmunjom helps make up for the failed talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, this past February.
Beyond the show, however, the meeting was important for several reasons. First, it created a forum for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to agree on restarting negotiations. Both leaders left Hanoi empty-handed, but that affected Kim more directly than Trump. Kim had invested considerable political capital in the talks, and the rumored purge of people who were closely involved in the talks suggests the degree to which Kim lost face.
The meeting was also important because it was the first between leaders of both Korean states and an American president. For years, North Korea has attempted to deal with the US directly, insisting South Korea is not a legitimate state. The sight of the three leaders meeting reflects North Korea’s de facto acceptance of the South as a legitimate state.
Since the peak of tensions between the US and North Korea in 2017, South Korea has encouraged the US and North Korea to engage each other. Though Moon has been criticized for acting as an intermediary, his efforts have been critical to reaching this point. His proactive stance on the Panmunjom meeting gave it gravitas and reaffirmed his commitment to bilateral talks with North Korea.
Going forward, domestic politics in South Korea and particularly the US will weigh heavily on events. President Trump and President Moon need good news out of North Korea to strengthen their positions before important elections, which means they will remain favorably disposed to talking with North Korea.
Beyond next year’s elections, Trump and Moon are thinking of the history books. Trump no doubt expects to be reelected and would like to use his second term to make a deal with North Korea. Moon is limited by law to one term, but no doubt hopes to leave the office with his reputation intact.
Kim Jong-un obviously does not have to deal with legitimate elections, but he has to deal with the elite. To stay in power, he has to keep the elite both happy and afraid. To achieve elite-satisfying economic growth, North Korea will need more access to the global economy, which is why Kim is desperate to get UN sanctions lifted.
All of this means the window for an agreement to denuclearize North Korea is open now. If the meeting in Panmunjom helped open it a little wider, then it will go down in history as more than just another Trump show.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.