U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met for a third time. It all happened rather quickly, but the indicators of a possible last-minute summit encounter at the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone were there, as I told my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran on the most recent Asia Geopolitics podcast episode.
Enough transpired at the meeting that it merits a “summit” descriptor. So, we can say now that there have been three U.S.-North Korea summits: Singapore, Hanoi, and Panmunjom (the site of the Joint Security Area at the DMZ where the summit took place). Trump jetted over after his time at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, for an official visit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and, through Twitter, made the appearance of extending an impromptu invitation to Kim to meet him at the DMZ for what he said would be a quick two-minute “handshake.” Shortly thereafter, with an intervening working-level meeting between U.S. chief negotiator Steve Biegun and North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui at the DMZ, a hasty summit was arranged.
Trump went to pains to suggest that inception for the idea came while he was in Japan. He told the press that he had thought of meeting Kim the morning he sent out the Twitter invite. Of course, the reality was different: The Hill, an American publication that interviewed Trump days before his trip to Japan and South Korea, said that the president had asked them to withhold confirmation that the White House had plans to invite the North Korean leader to a summit. Events like these don’t materialize as quickly as they appeared to have. Separately, the exchange of letters earlier in June between Kim and Trump served to lay the groundwork for such a meeting.
Early impressions of the DMZ summit are as polarizing as ever. Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to cross into North Korea, which, for better or worse, leaves the event as a “historic” one. The crossing came 69 years to the day that the United States began aerial bombardment of North Korean territory during the Cold War, adding to the symbolism of the day. The crossing was prominently featured in North Korea’s state paper Rodong Sinmun, which also emphasized that Kim had traveled to Panmunjom at the U.S. president’s invitation. Between the crossing and its presentation in North Korea, observers have—correctly—underscored a propaganda victory for Kim Jong Un.
But that propaganda victory merits further complication. Yes, this summit further burnishes Kim’s appearance as a statesman on the international stage, and yes, it also continues the process of North Korea’s legitimation as a nuclear weapons possessor—a process that frankly was completed with the mere fact of the original Singapore summit last year. But, on the internal side, North Korea’s presentation of this summit suggests that the country’s carefully managed internal propaganda apparatus is content to convey a continuing narrative of shifting U.S.-North Korea relations under Trump. This may have the longer term effect of making negotiations with the United States more normalized as John Delury has argued, with possible beneficial effects beyond Trump.
Where the DMZ summit contributes little is on the denuclearization front. The fundamental negotiating positions between the United States and North Korea remain as divergent as they were after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. North Korea remains unwilling to unilaterally disarm and the United States remains committed to its maximum pressure campaign, unwilling to agree to support the easing of United Nations Security Council resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang. A curious New York Times report published after the DMZ encounter suggests that Washington might be changing its position, but that very story quotes Biegun rebuffing its central thesis as “speculation.” If there’s a pending shift, it doesn’t have the support of senior decision-makers or certainly Trump, who appears to remain interested only the positive optics of that summitry with North Korea yields.
Ultimately, critics who have described the DMZ summit as a simple photo-op are correct. Trump, while seated with Kim for brief talk, used the opportunity of the on-record press photo spray to remark that Kim had made them both “look good” by attending the summit. During his tour of the DMZ, before the meeting with Kim, Trump commented that the day’s events were historic, adding the following: “I say that for the press, they have no appreciation for what is being done, none.” Some observers underscored that the summit followed the first round of the Democratic Party’s primary debates as election season for 2020 in the United States get underway. Separately, summitry with Kim firmly supplanted June’s Persian Gulf doldrums from the top of the foreign policy news cycle in the United States. For a president keenly attuned to his media presence, the DMZ summit had its desired effect a few short moments after Trump’s initial Twitter invitation to Kim went out.
The summit did have an outcome—the reintroduction of working-level envoys and their presumptive continuation of talks—but it did little to shift the fundamentals on both sides. It’s unclear if the U.S. side has fully contended with Kim’s very public messaging after Hanoi that the clock is running out for North Korea as far as sanctions relief is concerned. In public remarks to the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s analog to a parliament, Kim said that the United States would need to reassess its negotiating position and make a “bold decision” to reach another serious summit. Kim added that he would wait “with patience till the end of this year.”
The year is now half over and the two sides have little to show for their three rounds of summitry. The agenda laid out in Singapore saw brief fulfillment last year, but everything from North Korea’s unilateral so-called “denuclearization steps” to the return of Korean War POW/MIA remains remain stalled. As Biegun acknowledged on June 19, the two sides don’t share a common definition of denuclearization just yet. Finally, with the U.S. seizure of the Wise Honest, the second-largest vessel in North Korea’s commercial fleet, for sanctions-evasion, the maximum pressure campaign continues apace. Trump and Kim’s personal chemistry has defibrillated a process that appeared to be dying a slow death after the Hanoi summit. Without a change in the fundamental negotiating position of the United States, the process will push ahead on borrowed time.