SEOUL: President Donald Trump is on his way to the Korean Demilitarized Zone for a historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Trump departed Seoul by helicopter on Sunday afternoon shortly after South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that Kim had accepted Trump’s invitation to meet at the heavily fortified site at the Korean border village of Panmunjom.
Trump told reporters before departing that he looked forward to seeing Kim and to “shake hands quickly and say hello.”
The meeting is set to mark yet another historic first in the yearlong rapprochement between the two technically warring nations. It also marks the return of face-to-face contact between the leaders since negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program broke down during a summit in Vietnam in February.
Moon praised the two leaders for “being so brave” to hold the meeting and said, “I hope President Trump will go down in history as the president who achieves peace on Korean Peninsula.”
Trump sought to tamp down expectations by saying the meeting would be “very short.”
“Virtually a handshake, but that’s OK. A handshake means a lot,” he said.
Officials spent Sunday morning working out logistical and security details, Trump said during an earlier appearance with Moon.
The invitation, while long rumored in diplomatic circles, still came across as an impulsive display of showmanship by a president bent on obtaining a legacy-defining nuclear deal. North Korea had responded by calling the offer a “very interesting suggestion.”
Presidential visits to the DMZ are traditionally carefully guarded secrets for security reasons. Trump claimed before flying from Japan to South Korea that he wasn’t even sure Kim was in North Korea to accept the invitation.
“All I did is put out a feeler, if you’d like to meet,” Trump said in Japan. He added, somewhat implausibly: “I just thought of it this morning.”
Before arriving in Seoul, Trump said at a news conference in Japan that he’d “feel very comfortable” crossing the border into North Korea if Kim showed up, saying he’d “have no problem” becoming the first U.S. president to step into North Korea.
His comments followed hours after Trump asked Kim to meet him there. “If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” he tweeted.
It was not immediately clear what the agenda, if any, would be for the potential third Trump-Kim meeting.
“It’s just a step. It might be an important step but it might not,” Trump said.
Such a spectacle would present a valuable propaganda victory for Kim, whose family has long been denied the recognition it sought on the international stage.
Despite Trump’s comments Saturday, he had told The Hill newspaper in Washington in an interview this past week that he would visit the DMZ and “might” meet with Kim. The paper reported it had withheld Trump’s comments, citing security concerns by the White House.
North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, said the meeting, if realized, would serve as “another meaningful occasion in further deepening the personal relations between the two leaders and advancing the bilateral relations.”
Meeting with Trump at South Korea’s presidential Blue House on Sunday, Moon said when he saw Trump’s invitation to Kim, “I could really feel that the flower of peace was truly blossoming on the Korean peninsula.” Moon, who will accompany Trump to the DMZ, added that the meeting – if it happens – would be a “significant milestone in the peace process.”
Trump’s summit with Kim in Vietnam earlier this year collapsed without an agreement for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. He became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the leader of the isolated nation last year, when they signed an agreement in Singapore to bring the North toward denuclearization.
Substantive talks between the nations have largely broken down since then. The North has balked at Trump’s insistence that it give up its weapons before it sees relief from crushing international sanctions.
Still, Trump has sought to praise Kim, who oversees an authoritarian government, in hopes of keeping the prospects of a deal alive, and the two have traded flowery letters in recent weeks.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has visited the 1953 armistice line, except for George H.W. Bush, who visited when he was vice president. The show of bravado and support for South Korea, one of America’s closest military allies, has evolved over the years to include binoculars and bomber jackets.
Trump, ever the showman, appears to be looking to one-up his predecessors with a Kim meeting.
Such trips to the demilitarized zone are usually undertaken under heavy security and the utmost secrecy. Trump tried to visit the DMZ when he was in Seoul in November 2017, but his helicopter was grounded by heavy fog.
Trump has staked his self-professed deal-making reputation on his rapprochement with the North and has even turned it into a campaign rallying cry. Trump has repeatedly alleged that if he had lost the 2016 presidential campaign, the U.S. would be “at war” with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The meeting would come at a time of escalating tensions. While North Korea has not recently tested a long-range missile that could reach the U.S., last month it fired off a series of short-range missiles. Trump has brushed off the significance of the tests, even though his national security adviser, John Bolton, has said they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.