President Donald Trump became the first sitting commander in chief to set foot in North Korea on Sunday when he met dictator Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Trump stepped into North Korea at 3:46 p.m. local time and walked 10 steps with Kim by his side. Trump stayed in officially hostile territory for about one minute before he and Kim walked back into South Korea. “It is good to see you again,” Kim told Trump through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.” Trump seemed eager to highlight the historic moment he had launched with what he had described as a spur-of-the-moment tweet: “Big moment, big moment.” Trump also invited Kim to the United States.
Trump celebrated the moment on Twitter. “Stood on the soil of North Korea,” he wrote, “an important statement for all, and a great honor!”
Although the hastily organized encounter—that came after Trump extended an invitation via Twitter that Kim said he was “surprised” to receive—was supposed to be little more than a handshake, it led to a 50-minute meeting between the two leaders. Trump and Kim agreed to restart stalled nuclear talks with the U.S. president saying both sides would set up teams to see how they could restart negotiations. “We just had a very, very good meeting,” Trump said. “We’ll see what can happen.” Kim expressed optimism that the symbolic act could turn into real progress, and said it shows both sides want to forge a new path. “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 said. Trump said it had been a “great honor” to step into North Korea. “A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made and this has been in particular a great friendship,” Trump said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said talks will likely begin “sometime in July.” Just because talks will resume doesn’t mean the sides are any closer to reaching a deal. Although Trump and Kim were optimistic when they met for the first time in Singapore in June of last year talks pretty much broke down after the second summit in Hanoi in February. Trump insisted now that he’s not expecting quick progress. “Trump said he and Kim were “not looking for speed. We’re looking to get it right.”
Even though the setting was historic though, critics were quick to describe the meeting as nothing more than a made-for-television moment from a president who loves grand gestures but often fails at the follow up. And while the president loves to take credit for decreasing tensions with North Korea, critics often point out he was the one who increased them with personal taunts against Kim, who he once called “Little Rocket Man.” “Once you move past the striking backdrop, however, there is a persistent and deepening skepticism among many experts that Trump is pursuing anything more than his own narrow interests,” notes the Associated Press.
Some, however, were eager to see the glass half full, saying that at the very least it could bring about the start of new approach to talks and a sign that Trump may be willing to accept a compromise that fall short of full disarmament. “This meeting could lead to a more substantive meeting down the road, later in the year,” Sue Mi Terry, who served as a National Security Council aide specializing in Korean affairs under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama told the New York Times. “I do think Kim could offer just enough on the negotiating table such as the Yongbyon nuclear facility plus yet another suspected nuclear facility in order to secure an interim deal with Trump and at least some sanctions relief.” At the very least, Trump stepping foot in North Korea can help Kim feel “less threatened,” which is key to making progress in talks, John Delury, a Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said.
In his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis praised the meeting between Kim and Trump. “I salute the protagonists, with a prayer that such a significant gesture will be a further step on the road to peace, not only on that peninsula, but for the good of the entire world,” he said.