The Twitter invitation was abrupt, even by Trumpian standards. On June 29, while visiting Japan for the G20 summit, President Donald Trump tweeted: "If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!"
Less than 48 hours later, Trump and Kim Jong Un would indeed shake hands at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. By taking a few steps across the military demarcation line, Trump kicked the stalled US-North Korea diplomacy back into gear.
S. Nathan Park
Still, Washington s foreign policy circles, for the most part, criticized the meeting. Apparently, the summit was problematic because there were no working level talks leading up to it. It was far too off-the-cuff, reducing the summit to a mere photo op. Surely, a hasty summit like this one would only serve to weaken sanctions against North Korea, and not produce any tangible result on North Korea s denuclearization.
These complaints are getting old in their stubborn refusal to reckon with the reality. At this point — two and a half years into this administration — it should be obvious that Trump simply will not conduct diplomacy in a way that foreign policy experts want him to.
The Panmunjom summit was less impromptu than meets the eye, as there were enough indications that something was in the works weeks before the actual meeting. On June 10, Kim sent Trump a letter, whose content South Korea s President Moon Jae-in described as "interesting." Kim, according to a report in North Korea s state-run news agency KCNA, described Trump s reply letter as "interesting" as well. And Trump, in fact, had already decided to invite Kim for a DMZ meeting by June 24, according to an exclusive interview given to The Hill but which had been embargoed at the request of the White House, citing security concerns.
Trump just made Kim s job a lot easier
Trump brought to Seoul most of his North Korea negotiators, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative Stephen Biegun. (Notably, however, the ultrahawk national security adviser John Bolton was in Mongolia at this time.) For his part, before meeting Trump, Kim met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom relayed Kim s desire for a dialogue.
Nor is it the case that the Panmunjom meet did nothing for denuclearizing North Korea. The complaint that no working level talks preceded the third Trump-Kim summit is backward: the meeting was necessary to get the working level talks back on track. The second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February failed, in part because North Korea s negotiators were not authorized to discuss denuclearization before the summit.
Since then, the situation only deteriorated: it was less than two months ago that North Korea was firing short-range missiles, insinuating it would soon resume testing for intercontinental ballistic missiles. But rather than going back to 2017 when Trump threatened to bring "fire and fury" in response to North Korea s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, the negotiation is moving forward — as Pompeo said the working level talks will resume mid-July. With the memories of Hanoi fresh in their minds, the negotiators from the US and North Korea will likely be motivated to find a compromise.
With 20 steps, Trump made history in North Korea 02:26
The narrow conception of denuclearization, only counting off how many nuclear facilities and warheads were disabled, misses the fundamental truth about North Korea s nuclear program. The Kim regime developed its nuclear weapons because it feared the US would attack North Korea. The key for denuclearizing North Korea, then, is not for the US to merely demand North Korea dismantle its nuclear program. Rather, the United States must seek to transform its relationship with North Korea from a hostile one to one based on peaceful interaction and trust — and achieve denuclearization as a part of this transformative process.
Indeed, building trust is critical for the sanctions regime against North Korea to work. If North Korea does not trust the US commitment to sanctions relief should the regime comply with the denuclearization measures — for example, like the way the Trump administration unilaterally scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran — sanctions will provide little leverage toward denuclearizing North Korea.
Seen from this perspective, the third Trump-Kim summit is groundbreaking. It showed the leaders of the two countries could meet on a short notice to overcome a diplomatic impasse, without months of posturing leading up to the meeting.
In this sense, the Panmunjom meet is similar to the summit between Kim and South Korea s Moon (also held in Panmunjom) in April 2018, which resuscitated the possibility for the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.
Of course, one must be clear-eyed to the reality that a tangible result has not yet materialized in Trump s North Korea diplomacy. But the same has been true with every US president that ever dealt with North Korea. Trump — with more than a little assist from Moon, it must be said — is the first American president to take this new approach, which strikes at the heart of the issue. It is worth being patient and seeing this through.