Trump’s visit to the DMZ: More Than Just Photo Optics?
Dr Gunjan Singh

Trump, in his impromptu diplomatic style, surprised the whole world when he tweeted an invitation to Kim to meet him at the Korean De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). The fact that Trump and Kim met on North Korean soil is a historic development. They met at Panmunjom on June 30. Trump is the first sitting President of the United States to visit North Korea and to extend an invite to Kim to visit the White House. If Kim visits the United States he will be the first North Korean leader to do so. One cannot ignore the fact that the Korean War is still on as no peace treaty has been signed.

Trump described this meeting as “a special moment” and “great relationship” while Kim said that their “handshake of peace” indicated that they are ready to move ahead in the future.1 South Korean President Moon Jae In called this meeting “start of an era of peace” and “the fruits of amazing imagination”.2 The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described this meeting a “rare opportunity for peace”. 3

This sends a strong signal that Washington and Pyongyang both want to continue the talks in the future. Kim did take a very novel step of welcoming Trump and meeting him. This is also an indication that Trump’s non-formal style may be working. It is likely that Trump and Kim will meet sometime in July to continue the talks.4 But it also raises the doubts of whether such meetings can actually be arranged on such short notice. If one has to be a cynic it is obvious that this may have been in talks for months, however, the informal style did gain a lot of traction.

The backdrop to this meeting is that North Korea and the United States have failed to reach any major consensus during the last two discussions. Beijing has continued to show support for North Korea and the fiery talks of Trump have not yielded any major returns. The recent visit of Xi underscored the argument that China will continue to support North Korea. On the other hand, Pyongyang appears to be getting disillusioned by the South Korean route of diplomacy and mediation. The meeting also comes days after Pyongyang criticised Seoul and asked it to stop any kind of ‘meddling’ between North Korea and the United States. The last two meetings between Kim and Trump were the result of Moon’s efforts and negotiations. While criticising the South Korean role the chief of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's U.S. affairs department, Kwon Jong Gun argued that, “It's better for the South Korean authorities to mind their own business at home”.5 The tests conducted by North Korea after the failure of the Hanoi talks were an indication to Seoul that it needs to push for more concessions on the economic sanctions and also push for North Korean agenda.6

Though this is a positive step, what this will achieve is still questionable. It did attract eye balls and gave hope that a formal third summit is in making. The larger questions of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula continue to linger. The visit has given Kim something which always a mirage, the acceptance of its leadership and diplomatic capabilities. It also underscored the point that Kim understands and knows how to exploit the denuclearization issue. Even though the last summit ended abruptly, he has managed to get Trump back on the negotiating table.

But one cannot ignore that while the leaders were meeting for photo optics there were talks at the United Nations to continue and also intensify the sanctions imposed on North Korea. The permanent mission of the United States to the UN under instruction of the State Department sent a joint letter by the US, France, Germany and Britain to all UN member states on June 29. The letter called on the member states to implement sanctions against North Korea.7 This is a clear indication that the United States will continue to use the ‘carrot and stick’ formula with North Korea. On the one hand, Trump is keen to talk and try and achieve the denuclearization, while on the other hand it wants to continue restricting the North Korean regime’s freedom by sanctions. However, the question of Chinese influence continues to overshadow this meeting. Xi met with Kim and Trump both in June. This does raise the question of how far is Xi responsible for this ‘historic step’. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that during the G20 Meeting Xi had urged that the United States to be more flexible and also ease some sanctions on North Korea.8

Even if this meeting does not achieve any concrete goals it shows the commitment of both sides towards continuing the talks. Kim has made it very clear that hard hand approach is not going to work. If the United States wants to achieve peace and denuclearization the most probable way is to talk. The indication that the two sides will come together again to carry forwards the discussion which abruptly ended in Hanoi is a good sign for the Korean Peninsula and the East Asian region.

References
  1. “Trump steps into DPRK to greet Kim, renew talks” China daily, July 1, 2019 at http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201907/01/WS5d19024fa3103dbf1432b100.html, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  2. “South Korea leader says Trump-Kim meeting marked 'end of hostile relations'” Fox News, July 3, 2019 at https://www.foxnews.com/world/south-korea-trump-kim-meeting-an-end-of-hostile-relations, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  3. “Xi Jinping calls for ‘timely’ easing of North Korea sanctions after Trump-Kim meeting” South China Morning Post, July 2, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3016981/beijing-reaffirms-support-gradual-easing-north-korea-sanctions, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  4. “North Korea says US ‘hell-bent on hostile acts’ despite wanting to talk” South China Morning Post, July 4, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/3017192/north-korea-says-us-hell-bent-hostile-acts-despite-wanting-talk, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  5. “North Korea Urges South to Stop Mediating Between North, U.S.” The Bloomberg, June 27, 2019 at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-27/urgent-nkorea-urges-south-to-stop-mediating-between-north-us, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  6. “South Koreans React With Hope, Skepticism Over President Trump-Kim Jong Un Meeting” Time, June 30, 2019 at https://time.com/5617900/south-korea-trump-kim-meeting/, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  7. “North Korea says US ‘hell-bent on hostile acts’ despite wanting to talk” South China Morning Post, July 4, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/3017192/north-korea-says-us-hell-bent-hostile-acts-despite-wanting-talk, (accessed July 5, 2019).
  8. “Xi Jinping calls for ‘timely’ easing of North Korea sanctions after Trump-Kim meeting” South China Morning Post, July 2, 2019 at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3016981/beijing-reaffirms-support-gradual-easing-north-korea-sanctions, (accessed July 5, 2019).

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