When President Trump stepped into North Korea with Kim Jong Un beside him, was that history-making moment nothing more than a photo-op?
That’s what Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called it, and other Democrats running for president disparaged it as well. But take American presidential politics out of it and the view may look different — especially from South Korea.
“If President Trump met Chairman Kim for only two minutes for a ‘photo-op,’ it would have been an ugly political show,” said Chung-in Moon, a Yonsei University professor, who has been an adviser to South Korean president Moon Jae-in, via e-mail. “But President Trump brought Kim back into the House of Freedom [in South Korean territory] and held an intensive bilateral talk for almost an hour. The talk also produced a tangible outcome, namely the resumption of working-level talks within two to three weeks. Thus, it was both symbolic and substantive.”
Last July, I met with Chung-in Moon in Seoul, as part of a Korea-United States Journalists Exchange. The trip was sponsored by the East-West Center, a nonprofit organization that receives some funding from the US government, and the Korea Press Foundation, a quasi-governmental agency. Some of those we interviewed were clearly invested in South Korea’s official outreach efforts to the North. But understanding that a single trip makes no one an expert on the general mood of a country, what stood out with nearly everyone we met was a longing for peace and normalized political and economic relations with North Korea, to the point, some might say, of willingly ignoring the history of that brutal regime.
Optimism, however naive, sprang from an April 2018 meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim at the military demarcation line that separates the two countries; and the June 2018 summit that followed between Trump and Kim in Singapore, the first between the leaders of the United States and Korea since the end of the Korean War. Magazine covers displayed photos of a beaming Kim and Moon, and people took pictures of each other standing next to large cartoon-like cutouts of Kim and Trump.
Then, as an Associated Press timeline recounts: A February 2019 meeting between Trump and Kim collapsed in Hanoi without any agreement. In May, North Korea fired “two short-range missiles into the sea.” Things looked bleak. But on June 29, Trump tweeted an invitation to Kim to shake hands during a planned visit to the DMZ. On June 30, they not only shook hands — Trump also walked 20 steps into North Korea and Kim walked back into South Korea with Trump.
In that, Chung-in Moon sees “a great gesture” by Trump that may or may not be a game-changer. Meanwhile, he said, “Many South Koreans now believe that President Trump wants to be a peacemaker. It is a phenomenal change of South Korean perception of Trump from that of warmonger.”
Trump went from calling Kim “rocket man” and threatening North Korea with total destruction in 2017 to telling a campaign rally in 2018 that the two “fell in love.” Remember the blowback when Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, was asked if he would “be willing to meet separately, without preconditions,” with leaders of countries like North Korea? “I would,” he said. “And the reason is that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them . . . is ridiculous.” Back then, conservatives attacked him for embracing what they called a weak, naive, and dangerous policy.
By essentially following that policy, Trump got his historic photo-op. Now the question is what comes of it? The New York Times reported the Trump administration is considering a deal with North Korea that “freezes” the nuclear program. Trump critics are calling that a concession that signals to Kim that the United States is no longer demanding complete and total denuclearization.
“The wisdom of such a partial deal is in the eye of the beholder,” wrote Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.
For now, the meaning of Trump’s DMZ drama is also in the eye of the beholder.