The recent G20 Summit in Osaka is unlikely to be remembered for the 90 minute discussion between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, the leaders of the two largest military powers, even though they agreed to expand economic ties and instructed their foreign ministers to launch preparations for talks on the future of the New START, since the treaty is set to lapse in 2021, removing the last constraints to avoid an all-out arms race.
All this was overshadowed by what Donald Trump said and what followed at about midday on June 29. The G20 Summit had already ended when the US President said that since he planned to visit South Korea at President Moon Jae-in’s invitation after the Osaka summit, he would like to visit the 38th parallel to say hello to Kim Jong-un. This has virtually broken all hell loose, with politicians and observers arguing that all this was for show, just a photo op, an attempt at a Nobel Peace Prize, or a spontaneous gesture by an unpredictable Trump. He managed to add more fuel to the fire by saying that he made the decision that same morning without any prior planning. It has to be said however, that no one asked him why he had not visited the demilitarized zone to see the 38th parallel during his previous visit to South Korea.
What started immediately after his tweet was even more interesting. It so happened that the DPRK’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui, who is known to have many other things to do at the ministry, read the message and within moments told the DPRK’s Central News Agency that it was an interesting idea, but that the US had yet to offer an official proposal. It remained everyone’s guess until midday June 30 whether the meeting would take place and how it would unfold. South Korean journalists and politicians dreamed of a trilateral encounter so that Moon Jae-in could join the US and DPRK presidents. This was largely due to the fact that President Moon played a significant role in the early stages of North Korea-US contacts in 2018 and during preparations for the Singapore meeting by explaining the positions of the sides, helping promote a rapprochement and even, to some extent, outlining political statements.
However, just three days before Donald Trump’s surprise statement, Director of the American Affairs Department at the DPRK Foreign Ministry, Kwon Jong Gun, issued a stark rebuttal, saying that “In the true sense of the word, parties to the DPRK-U.S. dialogue are none other than the DPRK and the U.S., and in view of the origin of the DPRK-U.S. hostility, the south Korean authorities have nothing to meddle in the dialogue. As is globally known, the DPRK-U.S. relations are moving forward on the basis of the personal relations between Comrade Chairman of the State Affairs Commission and the US President.”
To an outside observer it might have appeared that Trump only needs to express the desire to have Chairman Kim see him whenever Trump so wishes, and that Kim would sprint to the 38th parallel to welcome the US President with a happy smile.
First, not long before the surprise invitation, a leak was arranged from the two sides alleging that Trump and Kim Jong-un had exchanged letters with compliments. On June 23, the DPRK’s Central News Agency reported that Chairman Kim had received a personal letter from Trump. According to the agency, Kim Jong-un “said with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content. Appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump, Kim Jong-un said that he would seriously contemplate the interesting content.” The fact that Trump had offered an unusual overture in the letter was already evident. Moreover, when asked a few days later what was in the letter, Trump said that it was an answer to a birthday greetings he had received from Kim Jong-un. This is strange, since the sender claims that the letter was intended simply to thank his counterpart for a birthday greeting, while the addressee praised Trump for his political judgement and courage.
On June 24, in an interview with a US newspaper, Trump said that he would like to visit the 38th parallel as part of his upcoming visit to South Korea after the Osaka Summit. Interestingly, these words did not make it into the published interview. The newspaper was asked by the White House to remove this passage from the interview, citing security concerns. On the morning of June 30 Trump confirmed that he planned to visit the 38th parallel and referred to the trip as “long planned.” On the evening of June 29, sharp-eyed journalists and observers noticed that Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and the lead State Department negotiator on the DPRK Stephen Biegun, were absent from the reception on behalf of President Moon in honor of the US delegation, even though they were invited and had confirmed attendance. They returned to the hotel late in the evening. Where did they go? It would be a fair guess to say that they were discussing the last details of the meeting at the 38th parallel.
So after his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump took a helicopter to Panmunjom where Moon Jae-in was waiting for him. Trump walked toward a concrete dividing line (just 10 cm high) on the 38th parallel that marks the border between the two countries. At the same time Kim Jong-un appeared from the Phanmun Pavilion and started moving toward Trump, who reached the line a little in advance and was waiting for Kim to reach him with his customary wide stride. They shook hands over the concrete line, after which the DPRK leader invited Trump to step over the line. They then made a few steps on DPRK soil, stopping short of reaching the stairs to the Phanmun Pavilion, posed for photos and then walked back to the border line. After crossing it in the opposite direction, they headed to a South Korean building known as the House of Freedom, where they were greeted by Moon Jae-in. Kim sincerely greeted his South Korean counterpart.
So, this encounter turned out to be far more than a handshake across the border or a 15-minute conversation (actually 7.5 minutes, considering pauses for consecutive interpretation) about the weather and health. Instead, the two leaders had a meaningful dialogue. This is how North Korea described them: “The top leaders of the two countries, the DPRK and the US, explained issues of easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, ending the inglorious relations between the two countries and making a dramatic turn of the relations and also issues of mutual concern and interest which become a stumbling block in solving those issues, and voiced full understanding and sympathy. The two leaders agreed to keep in close touch in the future and resume and push forward productive dialogue for making a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in the bilateral relations.”
It was also mentioned that the two leaders expressed great satisfaction over the results of the talks, and that Trump and Moon Jae-in accompanied Kim Jong-un after the talks to the separation line (this is seen as a sign of respect). It is worth noting that the DPRK’s Central News Agency decided to leave out of the translated versions of the report one passage on the June 30 meeting in which the meeting was called an extraordinary event that demonstrated the high level of trust between the leaders despite the long-standing hostility between the two countries. By the way, Kim Jong-un praised Trump’s bold move to arrange the meeting and the talks.
According to information shared by the US, the two leaders agreed to establish working groups in the near future on normalizing relations and resolving the nuclear issue. Trump also said he wanted to invite Kim Jong-un to Washington, and also mentioned his desire to lift the sanctions in the future. The North Korean news agency didn’t mention anything like this.
So, what are the takeaways from this supposedly spontaneous meeting?
1. The meeting was not held for the sake of a handshake, and was not an improvisation. It confirmed that a new meeting between the two leaders was inevitable after the failed Hanoi Summit, as Korean studies experts in Russia had been saying all along. Both Trump and Kim needed this meeting for different, albeit converging, reasons that are related to both national interests and image-related considerations.
2. The 38th parallel offered the stage for a historic meeting between the DPRK and US leaders, while symbolizing the separation of a people, largely caused by the US. Trump will now go down in history as the first US president in office to step on DPRK soil, while Kim Jong-un will be known as the first DPRK leader to succeed in inviting, albeit for just a few minutes, a US president to his country.
3. The meeting confirmed that the DPRK does not need South Korea to mediate its relations with the US. Neither the US nor Trump personally need a mediator in their relations with the DPRK. In principle, mediators are expected to stay neutral to both sides. As for South Korea, it cannot be fully independent in its actions due to its status as a military and political ally and considering its junior status in this alliance despite being a sovereign country and a UN member state. This is why South Korea has to coordinate many things with the US, and take its position into account even on bilateral North-South matters. It is true that Moon Jae-in played a positive role as a mediator initially when contacts focused on overarching political matters. However the US is not known for recognizing the contribution of its allies when it comes to addressing urgent matters, and never treats them as equals. Instead, the US regards the assistance it receives as a given or as the responsibility of its allies rather than a favor or a desire to help. It is for this reason that Trump did not invite Moon Jae-in to the Singapore summit in the summer of 2018 and the Hanoi summit in the winter of 2019, or the meeting on the South Korean side of the demarcation line on June 30 (although Moon Jae-in was there in a nearby building). This is why Moon Jae-in is expected to play a different role in promoting normal inter-Korean relations and a resolution to the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. As I have said in a number of articles, my personal belief is that no significant progress in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be achieved until the two Koreas normalize their relations. Thus, the South Korean leaders must be more dedicated and bold in their efforts, and also show the ability to normalize inter-Korean relations without listening to anyone else or following in Washington’s footsteps.
4. It seems that during his meeting with Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump was influenced, at least to some extent, by the opinion of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping with whom he had meetings in Osaka on June 29 on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Not only did they share information on Kim Jong-un’s position and proposals, but they also met with the North Korean leader before seeing Trump in Japan. They explained the gist of the new initiatives by Russia and China to draw up a roadmap for resolving the Korean Peninsula denuclearization issue, based on a step-by-step approach and reciprocal moves, which implies mutual compromises and decisions for strengthening trust.
It is hard to predict how long the US will stay with this approach. One thing is clear: the DPRK will go the whole nine yards to find a compromise and will not be the first to break the agreements, which means that its possible refusal to abide by any of the commitments it undertakes will be a response to actions by the US.
It can be argued that the role of other interested countries should be to create a favorable environment for the DPRK and the US so that they can find acceptable solutions and normalize relations, as well as deliver on the promise of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, even if it takes many years and requires unconventional approaches.