In crossing the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom with Kim Jong Un on June 30, Donald Trump became the first sitting American president to set foot in North Korea. The event is undeniably historic, symbolic. That doesn’t change the fact that these two like to put on a show and that, after all is said and done, the adoration that they pretend to have for one another is nothing more than a healthy dose of tenuous appeasement, lacking any concrete results on the issue of denuclearization.
All the same, there is still room to be cautiously optimistic about their recent warm handshake. The symbolism is strong, because American presidents who have visited the DMZ before Trump have never done so in a spirit of reconciliation. Even though his approach to foreign policy is, on the whole, anything but nuanced — the man blows hot and cold in an exaggerated fashion — it is possible that Trump will begin to recognize that, in addressing the tenuous relationship with North Korea, small steps are useful in achieving diplomatic goals. And, hopefully, he will apply that same knowledge to his relationship with Iran.
None of this might have happened without the patient and diligent mediation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, elected in 2017, with the goal of sustainably pacifying inter-Korean relations, which have remained frigid for most of the last 70 years. Moon is a valued player and intermediary in this matter. It may be that the latter, encouraging Trump to meet his North Korean counterpart on June 30, told him that after Xi Jinping's visit to Pyongyang less than two weeks ago — the first of a Chinese president to North Korea in 14 years — it would be a good idea to go say “Hello!” to Kim, to counter the influence of Beijing. In this case, Kim and his totalitarian regime once again proved that, courted from one side or the other, they could still manage to play the United States against China.
Yet, after last month's Hanoi summit failure, which ended abruptly without any breakthrough, the June 30 mini-summit resulted in Trump's announcement that talks between the two countries will end soon and then resume “within two to three weeks.”
Resuming the dialogue? But on what terms? The U.S. has never deviated so far from its position of demanding, first and foremost, a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a condition that many experts have viewed as totally unrealistic, given the progress made by North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.
This demand led to the abrupt end of the summit in Hanoi because, in order to suspend its nuclear and ballistic tests, Pyongyang wanted concessions from Washington that did not come.
However, the U.S. is showing signs of easing, which would serve the interests of Kim, leader of a regime with an extremely repressive nature which obviously does not bother the U.S. president’s conscience.
On June 30, Trump's silence on the “complete” denuclearization requirement was therefore eloquent; while at a press conference in Seoul, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun reported a resumption of dialogue based on the idea of ”simultaneous and parallel progress.” The formula is general, but it backs up The New York Times' report that the U.S. government is considering, in exchange for a freeze on the North Korean nuclear program, an easing of the harsh sanctions that strangle the small country of 25 million people, who are struggling with its worst harvest in 10 years.
This means that the idea is making its way to Washington from a more realistic approach, much to the chagrin of the president’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. A door has been opened.
But will it remain that way?