Asia-Pacific

Four takeaways from the Trump-Kim meeting at the DMZ

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Donald Trump has made history by becoming the first US president to to enter North Korea.

When President Donald Trump sent a Twitter invitation on Friday to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, to meet at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas — “just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” — both men had much to gain, and more to lose.

If Kim did not attend, even though his side had seemed intrigued, it would have embarrassed Trump and opened him up to more criticism for his unpredictable diplomacy. It would also have compounded the dramatic failure of their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, which Trump abruptly called off in February.

But the North’s leader showed up at the appointed time. Here are four takeaways from the historic encounter.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk out of Freedom House at the border village of Panmunjom.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk out of Freedom House at the border village of Panmunjom.
AAP

It was near pandemonium

The scene appeared to be chaotic at times, with video footage showing journalists and camera people scurrying around the two leaders, jockeying with security officials and elbowing one another to position themselves into the perfect spot to record the encounter.

And the North Korean security forces left bruises on the American side.

Stephanie Grisham, the newly minted White House press secretary, had a trial by fire after she tried to facilitate the American television crew’s entry into a building called Freedom House and emerged roughed up from body blows by North Korean officers, according to journalists at the scene.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands in border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands in border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.
AAP

CNN reporter Jim Acosta said on Twitter that the encounter was being described as “an all out brawl.” Earlier, he said during a CNN broadcast that he had experienced the same treatment when he had been in Singapore for Trump’s and Kim’s first summit, in 2018.

The unpredictable nature of the meeting and its security logistics could not be overstated, as at times Kim’s bodyguards, grim-looking behind sunglasses, appeared to be straining to fully protect the North’s leader. They seemed hemmed in by Western reporters, camera people and handlers from the United States, North Korea and South Korea.

In addition, shouts of “Guys! Guys! Come on!” could be heard as photographers yelled for two North Korean cameramen to get out of the shot. The two were relentless in their mission to record their leader’s meeting with Trump — even if it meant blocking the other journalists.

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New White House press chief jostled
New White House press chief jostled

This was more than a handshake

The unexpected invitation on Friday that took Trump’s diplomatic corps by surprise while the president was attending the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, was a Hail Mary appeal that experts acknowledged paid off in symbolism — if not in immediate concrete gains.

It morphed from a tweet, to a handshake, to a historic 20 steps by an American leader into officially hostile territory: At 3:46 p.m. local time on Sunday, Trump became the first serving American president to cross the border and set foot in North Korea.

“Big moment, big moment,” said Trump, who patted Kim several times on the back.

“It is good to see you again,” a beaming Kim told the president at the Demilitarized Zone through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.”

After posing for photographs in a crush of international journalists, the two men walked back to the South Korean side amid a whir of cameras and had a bilateral meeting that lasted about an hour in Freedom House.

At the end, Trump said the two men had agreed to send their negotiators back to the table to seek a long-elusive agreement on the North’s nuclear ambitions. Trump also said he would invite Kim to visit him at the White House.

Viewers saw a close-up view of a border with a grim history

During the meeting Sunday, video footage showed intimate, colorful glimpses of a border sometimes called the last Cold War frontier.

Viewers caught sight of men holding a thick yellow rope, which apparently was used to corral journalists at the site. (It was not quite the velvet rope the White House Press Office put up in front of the press corps in 2017, when Sean Spicer was press secretary.)

Then there were the blue huts. The 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that has separated North and South Korea for decades is jointly overseen by the American-led United Nations Command and North Korea. The squat huts, which straddle the demarcation line, are painted powder blue in the color of the United Nations.

Camera lenses offered close-up views of the barriers and markers in the “truce village” of Panmunjom — 32 miles north of Seoul and 91 miles south of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital — where officials signed an armistice in 1953 to halt the three-year Korean War.

The area is lined with mines and barbed-wire fences, though those were not as visible Sunday. Combat-ready soldiers train deadly weapons at the other side. But on Sunday, it appeared to be overrun by journalists. As cameras homed in on the low concrete barrier that Trump crossed to enter into North Korea Sunday, it hardly seemed daunting. But visitors have dared not cross the slab, for fear of being shot.

In 2017, a North Korean soldier defected to South Korea through the heavily guarded zone separating the two countries, leading to gunfire on both sides of the border. Closed-circuit television footage showed the soldier’s dramatic dash through the Joint Security Area north of Seoul, the South Korean capital, on Nov. 13.

The most notorious incident at Panmunjom happened in 1976, according to The Associated Press, when ax-wielding North Korean soldiers killed two American officers sent out to trim a tree that had been blocking the view from a checkpoint. Washington sent nuclear-capable bombers toward the DMZ in response. Animosities eased after Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, expressed regret for the episode.

The world will be watching to see what comes next 

The two leaders greeted each other like old friends Sunday, with a beaming Kim, 35, praising Trump, 73, and with the American president offering effusive praise of the man many experts have called a brutal, mercurial dictator who has killed members of his own family.

“This has a lot of significance because it means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past and try to create a new future, so it’s a very courageous and determined act,” Kim told reporters through an interpreter.

“I don’t think this kind of surprise meeting would have happened without the excellent personal relationship between your excellency and me,” he later told Trump in Freedom House.

“If he didn’t show up, the press was going to make me look very bad,” Trump said of Kim, adding, “So you made us both look good, and I appreciate it.”

Later, he said: “Certainly, this was a great day; this was a very legendary, very historic day.”

Even as the meeting thrummed with the weight of a symbolic moment of reconciliation, Trump is eager for a resolution to the stalled nuclear talks with North Korea as he heads into a reelection year. He clearly hopes it would be defined as a signature element that could boost his campaign.

But US intelligence agencies and analysts have concluded that North Korea “is unlikely” to give up its nuclear arsenal. Kim has stoked an international crisis by launching missiles and projectiles — as recently as May — and threatening more nuclear weapons tests.

“Tomorrow, North Korea will still have nuclear weapons, and the US will still maintain sanctions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Even Trump, amid the lavish praise, injected a word of caution that anything concrete would materialize from his moment, saying: “It’ll be even more historic if something comes out of it.”

By Yonette Joseph © 2019 The New York Times

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