Peace talks between the United States and North Korea are back on the agenda in Washington thanks to an impromptu meeting at the DMZ on Sunday. The G20 summit in Osaka, Japan was concluding when US President Donald Trump tweeted an invitation to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un during a then-unannounced stop at the South Korean side of the border. The momentous occasion marked the first time a sitting US president stepped inside North Korea, as the two leaders shared a minute-long walk before returning to the Freedom House on the opposite side of the border.
While crossing the line into North Korea is historic for Trump, it would be even more significant to forge a lasting peace deal with the Asian country. Since taking office, Trump has strived to be a global dealmaker, targeting nations which have historically been at odds with Washington, either economically or politically. Nuclear proliferation has been a hot-button issue for the president with both Iran and North Korea.
Trump removed the US from the Joint Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was negotiated under his predecessor’s administration, President Barack Obama. Whereas Obama had lifted sanctions on Iran in return for nuclear oversight, he hadn’t made similar, or any, headway in forging an agreement with Kim. The rogue Asian country has been a political adversary ever since the Korean War armistice in 1953.
No president, either while serving or after leaving office, has managed to make any meaningful gains, but Trump has approached the situation with a different flair than his predecessors. Observers have often noted how the US commander-in-chief bonds well with authoritarian figures such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump shared a few jokes and laughs at the G20 summit. Trump also appears to enjoy the company of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has praised the President Rodrigo Duterte, and commended Chinese President Xi Jinping on attaining a lifetime appointment. Compared with how Trump treats the leaders of traditional US allies, such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau or Germany’s Angela Merkel, from a certain perspective this observation may be validated.
It could be that Trump seeks to rule as the dictators he admires, and in some ways, he already does. By dodging a wide-ranging investigation into Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, and by his use of executive orders rather than legislation to carry out his policy agenda, he might be the most dictator-like president in living memory. Along with his portrayal of the media as an “enemy of the people” and “treasonous” – which have sparked several violent attacks on journalists – Trump seems to emulate other world leaders whom he respects, possibly because of their grip on power. Power and money are signs of respect in the business world where Trump rose to prominence, so this could explain his penchant for both.
These qualities, while generally perceived as negative characteristics, make him uniquely qualified to go head-to-head with North Korea, a state that no US president could crack. In Kim, Trump likely sees his own ambitions personified. Take, for example, the military parade Trump proposed before facing public backlash; it is commonplace in North Korea.
Trump also enjoys playing the dealmaker, whether on his reality television show, in his businesses, or now on the political stage. His strategizing on Iran is focused on undoing an Obama-era deal, his negotiations with China, Mexico, Canada, and Japan are all economic in nature. North Korea, however, is his chance to create something that no US president even attempted: a neutered state with friendly diplomacy.
Very little of substance came from Sunday’s meeting with Kim, except for the promise of further diplomacy, handled through negotiating staff on both sides. Stephen Biegun, US special representative for North Korea, will spearhead the renewed efforts at finding a middle ground. Previously, Trump and Kim met in both Singapore and Hanoi before discussions broke down. After that point, there was only radio silence from the nation and it appeared that any progress towards an accord was lost.
Lately, however, Kim had begun communicating with Trump via letters, something Trump has boasted of on occasion. One, in particular, was a “birthday letter” and another earned praise from Trump as being “beautiful.”
Above all, Trump left his third meeting with Kim full of praise and boasted of their relationship.
“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” Mr. 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.”
While that friendship has not yet materialized into an agreement, there is renewed hope after Sunday’s trip to the DMZ. In the two-and-a-half years since Trump took office, North Korea has taken a calmer posture and even provided the US with the release of detained Americans and the remains of Korean War casualties. The situation has also been attended to by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and even Xi of China visited Pyongyang last week. Between the intermediaries and Trump’s negotiation squad, peace on the Korean peninsula, a once inconceivable goal, is now within the realm of possibilities.