SEOUL – President Donald Trump prepared Sunday to tour the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea – and, quite likely, speak with nuclear-armed leader Kim Jong Un and become the first U.S. president to actually step over the border into North Korea itself.
“I’ve been told that Kim Jong Un would like to meet and it looks like they’re in the final stages of working out just a very quick meeting,” Trump said during a meeting with South Korea President Moon Jae-in.
The U.S. president said of Kim: “I look forward to saying hello to him if that all finally works out. I guess there’s always a chance that it might not, but it sounds like the teams would like to have that work out and so that’s good.”
For his part, Moon told Trump that a picture of him and Kim together would be “an historic event,” and “a significant milestone in terms of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.”
Said Trump: “A handshake means a lot.”
Trump, who extended his invitation to Kim Saturday on Twitter, cast the potential encounter with Kim as “just a quick hello,” not a full-on summit to negotiate the ending of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.
“We won’t call it a summit,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll call it a handshake, if it does happen.”
The two leaders have held summits in Singapore and Vietnam but have been unable to strike a deal in which North Korea junks its nuclear weapons facilities in exchange for reductions of economic sanctions.
The DMZ includes the border between North and South Korea, and no U.S. president has ever stepped over that line. Trump said he would have “no problem” becoming the first U.S. president to actually touch down in North Korean territory.
Before his DMZ visit, Trump met with South Korean business leaders and later huddled Moon, the president who is pushing for a third summit between Trump and Kim to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Before taking Air Force One back to the U.S., Trump on Sunday will speak to U.S. troops stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
Trump arrived in Seoul after attending the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. While there, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to re-start talks on a new trade agreement that could end the economically damaging trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
The last time Trump and Kim met, they broke off negotiations after a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. That meeting failed to yield progress toward an agreement in which North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim and the North Koreans said they would not submit a specific plan to dismantle nuclear weapons sites until the U.S. removes economic sanctions; Trump and the U.S. said they wouldn’t remove sanctions until Kim and the North Koreans put up a denuclearization plan.
Early in his term, Trump mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” and threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it ever made a move to use nuclear weapons.
As the North Koreans made overtures for settlement talks, Trump changed his tune toward Kim. In the wake of the summits, first in Singapore and then in Vietnam, Trump now casts Kim as someone with whom he can make a deal.
Trump’s faith is in contrast to foreign policy analysts and some aides who believe Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons, the key to control of his regime.
“We get along,” Trump said of Kim before his trip to Seoul.
In his remarks to the business leaders in Seoul, Trump criticized predecessor Barack Obama for his approach to North Korea. The current president claimed, without evidence, that his policy has avoided war with Kim’s government.
However informal, many foreign analysts see a potential Trump-Kim get-together as a prelude to a third summit.
Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies with the Center for the National Interest, said the two leaders can’t afford to renew the kinds of threats they made little more than two years ago.
“There will be a reset in relations, and that is a win for both leaders,” Kazianis said. “Both men have too much to lose now if they were to go back to the dark days of ‘fire and fury.’ A deal will take time to come together, but it will come together.”
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst with the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said an impromptu Trump-Kim meeting would do little to advance denuclearization.
That requires “sustained working-level negotiations” among experienced negotiators, she said, not “another photo-opp” with a “rights-abusing, illegal nuclear weapons-possessing North Korean dictator.”
Trump had planned to visit the Demilitarized Zone during a trip to South Korea in 2017, but bad weather forced him to cancel.
Visiting the DMZ, one of the world’s most heavily guarded areas, has become a near rite of passage for American leaders.
Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has toured the area except for George H.W. Bush, and he went when he was vice president.