North Korea: destination du jour


Donald Trump’s taste for moments of high drama took another twist on Sunday when he became the first US president to set foot on North Korean soil, striding forth across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

His encounter with Kim Jung-un looked even more hastily arranged than the American ping-pong team’s trip to China 48 years ago (see this week’s Talking Point).

In fact it was ‘almost a spontaneous move’ Trump said, after he tweeted on Saturday that would be open to a visit.

In what he will probably christen as the ‘tweet that changed the world’, he wrote: “If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

Kim duly showed up and Trump got his photo opportunity. In doing so, he put President Xi Jinping’s own trip to North Korea just a week or so earlier into the shade. Xi’s visit was the first by a top Chinese leader in 14 years, sparking speculation that it was part of a broader bid to outmaneouvre his American counterpart. “What will Xi and Kim talk about? Donald Trump,” Nikkei Asian Review wrote prior to the trip. “If all goes well, Xi could emerge with a diplomatic card to play when he meets Trump on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit.”

An alternative viewpoint is that one of the items in the “beautiful letter” Trump received from Xi was a promise to advance his cause with Kim. There is a view in some foreign policy circles that Trump wants his presidency to be remembered for a breakthrough on North Korea, much as Richard Nixon’s is recalled for his diplomatic milestone of visiting China. Knowing this, Xi sees an opportunity to win points for the broader negotiation with Trump over tariffs and tech restrictions.

If so, the G20 summit in Osaka might just go down in history as the starting point for the beginning of the end of the near seven-decade-old Korean War.

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