SEOUL — President Trump became the first sitting American commander in chief to set foot in North Korea as he met Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, Sunday at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, and the two agreed to restart negotiations on a long-elusive nuclear agreement.
Greeted by a beaming Kim, the president stepped across a low concrete border marker at 3:46 p.m. local time and walked 20 paces to the base of a building on the North Korean side for an unprecedented, camera-friendly demonstration of friendship intended to revitalize stalled talks.
“It is good to see you again,” an exuberant Kim told the president through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.”
“Big moment, big moment,” Trump told him.
After about a minute on officially hostile territory, Trump escorted Kim back over the line into South Korea, where the two briefly addressed a scrum of journalists before slipping inside the building known as Freedom House for a private conversation along with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Trump said he would invite Kim to visit him at the White House.
“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,” Kim told reporters. “So it’s a very courageous and determined act.”
“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” Trump replied. “A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made, and this has been in particular a great friendship.”
A showman by nature and past profession, Trump delighted in the drama of the moment, which he had arranged with a surprise invitation via Twitter barely 24 hours earlier. Never before had American and North Korean leaders gotten together at the military demarcation line, where heavily armed forces have faced off across a tense divide for 66 years since the end of fighting in the Korean War.
The encounter in Panmunjom had been cast as a brief handshake, not a formal negotiation, but the two ended up together for a little more than an hour. After emerging from their conversation, Trump said he and Kim had agreed to designate negotiators to resume talks in the next few weeks, four months after they collapsed at a summit in Hanoi.
The American team will still be headed by Stephen Biegun, the special envoy, but it remained unclear who would be on the North Korean side after reports of a purge of Kim’s team. Asked later if North Korean negotiators were still alive, Trump said: “I think they are. I can tell you who the main person is. And I would hope the rest are, too.”
Trump was already scheduled to make an unannounced visit to the DMZ during his trip to South Korea, and he portrayed the idea of meeting Kim as a spontaneous one, although he had been musing out loud about it for days. Still, it caught even his own staff by surprise and forced an extraordinary scramble to arrange logistics and security, a task that would ordinarily take days or weeks.
Trump gambled that the show of amity could crack the nuclear logjam, underscoring his faith in the power of his own personal diplomacy — even with brutal strongmen like Kim — to achieve what past presidents could not. More than halfway through his term, Trump is eager for a resolution to the long-standing dispute, seeing it as a signature element of the legacy he hopes to forge and a potential boost to his reelection campaign.
Even in this symbolic moment of reconciliation, Trump seemed to toggle back and forth between glory and grievance, reveling one minute in the history of the day and then the next griping that he was not getting enough credit for reducing friction with North Korea.
He seemed acutely defensive about criticism that he has yet to reach an agreement to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal despite summit meetings with Kim in Singapore in June 2018 and in Hanoi in February. Almost every time he saw a microphone, he complained that his achievement had not been appreciated.
“There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore,” he said. “Tremendous conflict and death all around them. And it’s now been extremely peaceful. It’s been a whole different world.”
“I keep saying that for the people who say nothing has been accomplished. So much has been accomplished,” he added.
Since Trump took office, North Korea has suspended nuclear tests, released detained Americans, and sent back to the United States the remains of some American soldiers killed in the war. South Korean officials and others in the region say tension has eased significantly, and Moon praised Trump as “the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula.”
But US intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea “is unlikely” to give up its nuclear arsenal, as Trump has demanded, and even amid the rapprochement, the North has produced enough fuel for a half-dozen additional nuclear weapons, according to one study. In May, it launched short-range missiles in violation of UN resolutions.
Critics called the DMZ greeting an overhyped photo opportunity. “Today is a victory for South Korea’s middle-power diplomacy and President Moon’s peace agenda,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “But tomorrow, North Korea will still have nuclear weapons, and the US will still maintain sanctions.”
Trump, wearing a dark suit, emerged from Freedom House on the South Korean side, walked along gravel between two blue huts to the demarcation line and stopped there to wait for Kim to approach. Kim, wearing his traditional Mao suit, bounded forward to greet him.
They shook hands and Trump patted the younger man’s arm before they stepped across the barrier and strode across a dirt field. The two turned and shook hands again for the cameras, then walked back to the border marker, posed again, and finally headed toward Freedom House.
After their private conversation, which lasted about 50 minutes, Trump escorted Kim back to the demarcation line and then watched as the North Korean headed back to his country.
“Certainly, this was a great day; this was a very legendary, very historic day,” Trump exulted afterward, before adding a cautionary note. “It’ll be even more historic if something comes out of it.”