On 30th June 2019, leaders of the United States and North Korea met at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the border that divides North and South Korea. Donald Trump became the first serving US President to visit North Korea. The US has not officially recognized North Korea as a sovereign state and is at conflict since the early 1950s. The meeting was followed by an abrupt twitter invitation on June 29th, during Trump’s visit to Japan for the G20 Summit in Osaka. Trump’s tweet “ If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello (?)!” was positively acknowledged by the North Korean leader. It felt like a déjà vu moment as the meeting reminded us of the Kissinger’s secret trip to China in 1971 to improve US relations with China.
In 2018, we witnessed a change in Trump’s strategy towards North Korea as he traveled to Singapore to meet Kim for the first time seeking denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Both leaders got familiar with each other, and the meeting ended with a vague statement on committing ‘the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.’ The second Trump-Kim summit this February at Hanoi, Vietnam turned out to be a disaster as North Korea was not ready to negotiate in terms that were in sync with the US expectations. Trump walked away from the table, leading to the breakdown in the talks and left too much uncertainty.
In this backdrop, the recent Trump visit to DMZ North Korea ended the impasse created in the second summit. Trump can be given credit to reboot the stalled nuclear negotiations. He chose the perfect time for the visit when the North Korean leadership was getting impatient over the lack of progress in the negotiations. Also of late, we witnessed a crackdown in the strategy towards North Korea in the inner circle of the foreign policy advisors in the US. The Hawks definitely seem to have an upper hand in the US approach towards Kim. Trump, with his personality-driven diplomacy, demonstrated that he is ready to put the relationship on a path and made history by becoming the first serving US President to visit North Korea.
Critics called the meeting a stunt, a meeting without any substance as nuclear weapons were not even mentioned in the summit. The Joe Biden campaign accused him of “coddling dictator at the expense of national security” while fellow Democratic candidate for President Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter, “Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator. Instead, we should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights.” Trump was accused of neglecting Japan and South Korea, both old and important allies of the US. Both countries are threatened by North Korea and now have no choice other than aligning themselves with Trump’s strategy.
The third Trump- Kim meet lasted for around one hour after the Trump- Kim handshake at the DMZ North Korea. “I never expected to meet you in this place,” Kim told Trump while the two shook hands. Later Kim told media that the meeting was significant because it means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past and try to create a new future, so it was a very courageous and a determined act.” There was no comprehensive agreement made, Kim seems to continue to produce nuclear bomb fuel, and the US is hell-bent on sanctions. The reason why the Democrats appear skeptical of Trump’s outreach to Kim and believe the diplomatic track may not lead to a nuclear breakthrough.
Trump’s visit certainly was much more than a symbolic gesture and a political win. South Korea’s President called the summit and end of mutual hostility between the two countries. The visit also has a hidden message to China, that the US no more needs China as a mediator for the negotiations. Trump does not want to empower China in his North Korean diplomacy, unlike his two immediate predecessors. The meeting agenda could be taking North Korea away from China and not Kim’s nukes. The summit will most likely help in reviving two countries lower-level official negotiations.
It’s difficult to determine as to what directions the negotiations are likely to proceed from here, as lack of mutual trust continues to exist from both sides. We are likely to witness a lot of uncertainty, twists, and turns in future negotiations.
*** The author is at present International Exchange Student, Department of Political Science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Doctoral Fellow at ICSSR, New Delhi and a Doctoral Scholar at Centre for Canadian, U.S. & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS) Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***