President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president in history to step foot in North Korea on Sunday as part of a surprise and supposedly impromptu meeting with Kim Jong-un. But like much of Trump’s foreign policy — and presidency — the event brought more spectacle than substance. Below is everything we know about what happened, what it means, as well as what some experts have been saying in response.
How did this come together, and was it really spontaneous?
On Saturday morning, President Trump tweet-invited Kim Jong-un to meet for an impromptu handshake in the DMZ. He has insisted (repeatedly) that it was some spur-of-the-moment idea he had — the equivalent of a diplomatic “U up?” text. Here’s what Trump said on Sunday:
Yesterday I was just thinking ‘I am here, let’s see whether or not we can say hello to Kim Jong Un. I put the word out and he got back and wanted to do it from the beginning and so did I.
Trump later said that he was also willing to cross the border into North Korea. Pyongyang eventually responded that it was an “interesting” idea, but was waiting for an official proposal before agreeing. Within less than a day, the meeting was on. But while few people are as impulsive as Trump is, there are several holes in his spontaneity claim (apart from the fact that he rarely tells the truth, or the full truth, ever.)
First, the two leaders exchanged letters earlier this month. And the New York Times reported on Sunday that an unannounced visit to the DMZ was already part of the Trump team’s itinerary and that the president “had actually been musing out loud about [meeting with Kim] for days in advance.” He’s also been dreaming of a DMZ meet-up since last year:
Furthermore, there are doubts that the meeting could have possibly been organized by both countries on such a short timetable, as one expert commented to the Washington Post:
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said it was inconceivable that the leaders of two powerful nations had arranged a meeting at such short notice, calling it a “show” designed to send a political message, without raising expectations about them making actual progress.
So what happened?
Trump traveled to the DMZ on Sunday afternoon, met Kim Jong-un at the demarcation line dividing the Koreas at 3:45 p.m. local time, then briefly crossed into North Korea and back. Kim reportedly told Trump that it was “good to see you” and that, “I never expected to see you in this place,” calling it a “very courageous and determined act.”
“This handshake of peace itself serves to demonstrate that today is different from yesterday,” Kim told Trump. Trump said it was his “honor” to visit North Korea, emphasizing how much the two leaders liked each other, and exclaiming that, “A lot of really great things are happening, tremendous things.”
The two leaders quickly returned to South Korea, briefly met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, then had a 53-minute meeting at the Inter-Korean House of Freedom. During that conversation, Trump told reporters, he and Kim agreed to restart negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, some four months after talks broke down at their second in-person summit in Hanoi.
“Our great relationship will provide the magical power with which to overcome hardships and obstacles in the tasks that needs to be done from now on,” Kim told Trump.
What was Trump’s take?
The showman president exaggerated and misrepresented the progress he and his administration have made with North Korea, while blaming the media for accurately reporting otherwise. He also seemed exceedingly pleased with himself over that unsubstantiated progress and the stagecraft as statecraft.
Trump said that Kim “made us both look good” by agreeing to meet, calling it a “great day” and emphasizing how he had delivered the region (and the world) from the brink of annihilation:
There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore. There were scary missiles. Tremendous conflict and death all around them. And it’s now been extremely peaceful. It’s been a whole different world.
He also griped, over and over again, about the lack of credit he has received from the press, including this series of comments:
They have no appreciation for what is being done, none. There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore. After our first summit, all of the danger went away … That wouldn’t necessarily have been reported, but they understand it very well. I keep saying that for the people who say nothing has been accomplished. So much has been accomplished.
Though Trump seemed happy to be the center of attention, he focused much of his own attention on the press throughout the day.
Where has the U.S.-North Korea peace process led thus far?
For the most part, nowhere, though Trump claimed on Sunday that “a lot of progress has been made.”
Trump had two summits with Kim Jong-un last year. The first, in Singapore, was a big photo op that produced no substantive agreement, and resulted in no significant changes in North Korea’s behavior. Analysts and U.S. intelligence officials say North Korea continued to secretly stockpile and conceal its nuclear and nuclear-capable arsenal all along. Subsequent negotiations, on the occasions that they happened, went nowhere.
Later in the year, the two leaders met again in Hanoi, but negotiators hadn’t made any real progress ahead of time, and the summit was a failure.
North Korea did stop testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, which helped deescalate the crisis, but Kim said they stopped because the tests were successful. Earlier this year, North Korea tested short-range ballistic missiles in an apparent provocation, but Trump and other White House officials shrugged it off. On Sunday, the president again downplayed the significance of those tests, insisting they didn’t count.
The main byproduct of the summits has been the development of what Trump seems to believe is a special relationship and personal understanding between him and the brutal North Korean dictator. That relationship has produced nothing of substance.
Did Trump invite Kim to the White House?
Pretty much. Per the AP:
Trump says he told Kim that, “at the right time, you’re going to come over” and that that could be “any time he wants to do it.”
Trump adds that he “would certainly extend the invite” and that, “at some point” it will happen.
How will the negotiations now proceed?
Trump said that the two governments will designate diplomatic teams and get restarted within two to three weeks. The U.S. team will be led by special envoy Stephen Biegun, and the North Korean team by (according to Trump) someone “who we know and we like.”
It’s not yet clear who that will be. The Hanoi talks were considered an embarrassment for Kim, since he was unable to secure relief from UN sanctions. There were even unconfirmed rumors that North Korea’s special envoy to the U.S., Kim Yong-chol, had later been executed, demoted, or sent to a hard-labor camp as part of a purge after talks broke down, but he resurfaced in public a few weeks later. He was not at Sunday’s talks.
“Speed is not the object,” Trump said, regarding the timeline.
What did North Korea get out of this?
For now, just more of what the regime has always wanted: legitimization and respect as a nuclear power, albeit one that is economically crippled by international sanctions (and its totalitarian government).
What about the sanctions?
Trump said on Sunday that although he didn’t like them, current sanctions would remain in the place against North Korea.
How “historic” was this event?
President Trump became the first sitting president to step foot in North Korea — walking a few yards to a road and then turning around and coming back. That was it.
Presidents Carter and Clinton both visited North Korea after leaving office, and DMZ visits are a staple of presidential trips to South Korea, just not the border hop or meet-up with the North Korean leader.
Nixon goes to China, this was not.
Trump tried to downplay expectations ahead of the meeting, employing an über-casual “let’s see what happens” attitude, but it was clear from the start that Trump wanted headlines and attention from the event.
Carefully staged statecraft is a major aspect of diplomacy, but typically in service or maintenance of larger, long-term policy goals.
In this case — as is often the case — President Trump’s primary goal seems to have been little more than a photo op and the opportunity to play peacemaking poseur. Indeed, Trump has shown a willingness to barge through any semblance of a diplomatic process to bask in the flashbulbs, then lie and exaggerate his ass off in an attempt to prove he belongs there. That is essentially what happened on Sunday.
Then again, whatever Trump’s intentions, negotiations had ended, and seemed unlikely to start up again anytime soon. Trump’s DMZ meet-up broke the standstill, and if talks really do resume and both sides come ready to compromise, it’s still at least possible they could reach common ground of some kind.
How historic does Trump want people to believe it was?
“This was a very legendary, very historic day,” Trump insisted. “It’ll be even more historic if something comes up, something very important,” he continued. “Very big stuff, pretty complicated, but not as complicated as people think.”
Did President Obama beg to Kim Jong-un to meet with him and fail — perfectly setting up Trump to show the world how much better he was at being president than Obama?
No. Trump said that on Sunday, but it’s a lie.
Is Trump still auditioning for a Nobel Peace Prize?
Most definitely. The image-obsessed president has repeatedly mentioned winning one, suggesting he deserved the award even before his first summit with Kim. And White House officials reportedly cajoled at least one world leader into nominating him last year, which Trump then bragged about.
Why did the new White House press secretary end up with bruises?
Incoming press secretary Stephanie Grisham was injured when North Korean guards tried to block press-pool members from a room where Trump and Kim were meeting, eventually causing the Secret Service to intervene.
Who made cameos in this big episode?
Presidential tagalongs Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were there. Before the DMZ trip, Ivanka seemed eager to cross into North Korea if she was invited, as she awkwardly explained to a reporter:
And sure enough, she and Kushner did get the opportunity to tip their toes in North Korean soil, then hung out on the sidelines of the talks — though it’s not at all clear what purpose they served.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson was also hanging around at the DMZ.
Wait, Tucker Carlson was there?
To interview the president, apparently — though his presence is more notable in light of him having recently become a de facto foreign-policy advisor to Trump. Carlson’s influence was reportedly a big part of the president’s recent last-minute decision to cancel an attack on Iran, and so it’s possible he’s been advising the president on North Korea as well.
Carlson called in live to Fox News from the DMZ on Sunday, and advocated a realist’s approach to the regime, in effect defending Trump’s chummy relationship with Kim Jong-un.
Carlson has also been regularly attacking John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor and one of the administration’s biggest cheerleaders for war with Iran, whom Carlson has called a “bureaucratic tape worm.” Speaking of which …
Where was ultrahawk John Bolton?
Enthusiastic war designer John Bolton would have typically been a mustached fly in the ointment at this kind of event. The longtime hawk once famously said that you know North Korea is lying when “their lips are moving,” and the regime has hated him right back. He is also the only member of the Trump administration who has, in effect, acknowledged how little North Korea has done throughout the peace process.
So they sent him to Mongolia on Sunday:
Who is Mike Bolton?
John Bolton, who the president has been lately misnaming as Mike Bolton, and did so again in South Korea.
It’s possible Trump has just been mixing up the names of the two biggest hawks in his administration, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It’s also possible that Trump is deliberately making fun of Bolton to please North Korea, Tucker Carlson, or himself.
And it’s also possible that Trump has been thinking about Michael Bolton’s easy-listening classic “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” amid all these meetings with foreign dictators.
What do the experts think?
Many have been highly critical of the sudden get-together:
Samantha Vinograd, who served on President Obama’s national security council, said on Sunday that Trump seems content to let North Korea have its nukes, telling the Los Angeles Times that:
By shaking hands with Kim Jong Un at the DMZ with no preconditions attached, he’s really signaling that his metric for success at this point is the status quo, which is no long-range missile tests and no nuclear tests … Kim has no reason to denuclearize, but every reason to push Trump for what he’s wanted all along, phased sanctions relief. … North Korea under Trump is a normalized, nuclear power.
But some analysts expressed hope that something (a Trump-branded spectacle) would be better than nothing (two nuclear-armed adversaries no longer talking):
MIT security-studies professor Vipin Narang echoed and expanded that point, suggesting it was time to change strategies:
I have no problem with a stunt that jolts a comatose working level process. But this was picking up the fifteen yards we lost at Hanoi because of Trump’s own hardened maximalist position. If that doesn’t change, this is just theatrics. And Kim still has an end of year deadline.
And nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis said on Sunday that he hopes the U.S. can turn the page, arguing that:
After the collapse of talks in Hanoi, Kim set a very public deadline for significant sanctions relief — the end of the year. I don’t care if they shook hands and stepped into North Korea. There is no evidence that Kim has relaxed that demand. Kim met Trump [on Sunday] because stroking Trump’s ego seems like an effective tactic to achieve sanctions relief. The only interesting question now is whether Trump was sufficiently flattered to take the deal he walked away from in Hanoi.
Under that deal, North Korea would close [the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center] in exchange for some sanctions relief. I don’t pretend this will significantly constrain Kim’s nuclear plans, but there is little hope Kim will disarm. It is past time to focus on other diplomatic goals.