SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump stepped foot into North Korea on Sunday during an extraordinary last-minute meeting with Kim Jong Un, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to enter the secretive, nuclear-armed nation. Although the unprecedented encounter comes despite the lack of any measurable progress on denuclearization between Washington and Pyongyang, Trump declared the meeting a success. Both leaders predicted it would lead to better things to become between their two countries. “Stepping across that line was a great honor,” Trump said after the two walked toward each other and shook hands. As he and Kim met in a nearby room minutes later, Trump declared: “This was a special moment.”
Kim also cast the brief meeting as a major diplomatic milestone — the first time U.S. and North Korean leaders have met at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.
He said he and Trump have an “excellent relationship” that made such a meeting — hastily arranged following an invitation by Trump on Twitter late Friday — possible.
“This means that we can feel at ease,” Kim said through a translator. “I believe that this will have a positive force on all of our discussions in the future.” He also told Trump that he “never expected” to see the president “at this place.”
Yet for all the fanfare, there are no signs that the U.S. and the North have made progress on the nuclear weapons issue that has led to North Korea’s estrangement from the world in the first place.
“We can only call it historic if it leads to something,” Victor Cha, a former Asia director at the White House and an NBC News contributor, said on MSNBC. Trump’s last summit with the North Korean leader — in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February — collapsed abruptly, with a planned signing ceremony scrapped and Trump explaining to reporters that “sometimes you have to walk.” At the center of that failure, U.S. officials have said, was Kim’s insistence that all nuclear sanctions be lifted in exchange for only some concessions sought by the U.S. from Pyongyang related to its nuclear program. But a senior Trump administration official told NBC News on Sunday that one possible outcome from Trump’s handshake with Kim is that it could jump-start negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea at a lower level being led by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea. Those talks could then focus on making more substantive progress on the nuclear issues.
Still, national security hawks and many of Trump’s critics have warned that such meetings give legitimacy to Kim and remove pressure needed to get the North to rid itself of nuclear weapons without accomplishing anything concrete.
“I’m never in a rush,” Trump said. “If you’re in a rush, you get yourself in trouble.” Trump also invited the North Korean leader to Washington. “I’ll invite him to the White House right now,” he said. Kim said it would be a “great honor” if Trump visited Pyongyang. Neither of those are likely to occur in the short term given the immense logistical and security challenges of arranging such a visit between countries that do not have diplomatic relations. Underscoring the extraordinary nature of Sunday’s meeting between the leaders, U.S. officials were unsure that it would actually happen until the moment Kim arrived, the senior official said, even though North Korea had agreed to it. The handshake and Trump’s visit to the DMZ unfolded in chaotic fashion under overcast skies as even White House officials accompanying the president were unsure what would happen next and journalists jostled to capture the historic encounter. Trump said that the security situation in the area had gotten better. “There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore,” Trump said. “After our first summit, all of the danger went away.” He added: “It’s all working out. It always works out.” Trump then traveled a short distance to speak with U.S. and South Korean troops who patrol the South Korean side of the border. “You are terrific people, you’ve done a tremendous job, and we’re with you all the way,” Trump said. Trump was already the first U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader while in office, having met with Kim twice before. This marks the first meeting in the no-man’s-land between North and South since the end of the Korean War.