Ever since Ronald Reagan visited the demilitarised zone in 1982, US presidents who have stood on the border between North and South Korea have adhered to two rules: wear a bomber jacket while staring determinedly down a pair of binoculars, and never cross the demarcation line.
On his impromptu trip to the Truce Village of Panmunjom on 30 June, Trump adhered to neither. In his signature blue suit and red tie, he greeted a beaming Kim Jong-un, who promptly reminded Trump that, “if your excellency takes a step forward, you will be the first US president to cross the border”—an invitation that proved irresistible to the commander-in-chief. “I’d be very honoured, I’d be very proud,” Trump said, before walking across to the clatter of cameras erupting behind them. The two men strolled up to a road a few metres away, before returning south side.
It was an anarchic spectacle more akin to reality TV than international relations, the kind of extemporised theatrics that makes Trump such an effective manipulator of the media. With his campaign for re-election in 2020 approaching, and assisted by his sympathetic helpmeets on Fox News, he will no doubt spin this powwow as evidence of his deal-making prowess, even if no deals have been made since high-level talks between the US and the DPRK began in Singapore in 2018.
For Kim, the meeting served similarly legitimising ends. The two-day Hanoi summit in February was a failure, and he returned to Pyongyang having been unable to secure sanctions relief from Washington (an issue of critical importance now, since North Korea is suffering its worst drought in decades). But this recent meeting with Trump, which included a 53 minute talk about holding future talks, will have boosted Kim’s image at home, since it was Trump who proposed it—something North Korea’s state media has emphasised—and it was Trump who set foot on North Korean soil.
The official paper of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Rodong Sinmun, declared that the “historic” summit had created “unprecedented trust” between two leaders who were committed to “terminating their unsavoury relationship, and making a dramatic turn.”
For realists like Victor Cha, the top Korea adviser in the George W Bush administration, the pageant at Panmunjom merely lends credence to a serial abuser of human rights and proliferator of nuclear weapons. The photo-op was undoubtedly a propaganda victory for Kim. Along with Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean regime has presented last week’s events as further evidence of Kim’s global statesmanship and superpower overtures.
It marks a considerable transformation in the DPRK’s geostrategic status. During the 1990s, the country was loathed by Washington, Beijing and Moscow, and generally considered a rogue totalitarian menace, an image that it has since tempered. China is eager to draw North Korea back into its sphere of influence, and Trump is impatient for a diplomatic win to tweet about (and a way to distract Beijing in the midst of a trade war). It’s possible that North Korea may yet find itself the centre of attention in an enfolding struggle between China and the US.
What’s harder to fathom is whether Kim is operating from a place of strategic genius, cleverly orchestrating attention without any intention of reforming North Korea’s state or relinquishing its nukes; or whether he’s doing all this from a position of concern, recognising the need for international assistance to help achieve economic development that will secure him power for years to come. Many experts in South Korea believe he wants to be the Deng Xiaoping of North Korea, shaping the economy around a similar export-led development model that built South Korea and Taiwan into industrial powerhouses. Kim can’t do this in hermetic conditions—he would need the assistance of the international community.
Like Trump, who also inherited a family empire of sorts, Kim has shown a willingness to buck convention. Unlike his grandfather and father, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, who between them transformed the North into a garrison state, Kim Jr.’s attempts to publicly court and be courted amounts to a rare, albeit slim, opportunity for real and tangible change on the Korean peninsula. The reference to “denuclearisation” in North Korea’s media coverage last week—a subject that has been avoided since Hanoi—suggests Pyongyang might be more inclined to confront the issue if formal talks re-start.
More significantly, though, as the Korean scholar John Delury has noted on Twitter, “Kim is legitimating peaceful relations with the US, and writing a new narrative of the US as non-threatening.” After decades of relentless anti-American propaganda, Kim’s meeting with Trump could be as much about making the US seem like a trustworthy interlocutor to the North Korean public as it is about shoring up Kim’s legitimacy.
The one certainty is that neither North Korea nor the US has a history of trustworthiness in international affairs. The same can be said both of Kim and of Trump, who has probably never kept his word. As he tweeted in 2014, “Crazy Denis Rodman is saying I wanted to go to North Korea with him. Never discussed, no interest, last place on Earth I want to go.”