SEOUL, South Korea — In 2017, President Donald Trump secretly planned to walk right up to the North Korean border to show Kim Jong Un that America would stand up to his brutal regime.
In 2019, Trump publicly implored Kim to meet him at that same border in order to smile, shake hands and discuss the future the two countries could bring about together.
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It was a dramatic turnaround that showed how Trump, groomed in reality TV and the flashy New York real estate world, can use the same exact camera-friendly, symbolic location for completely different theatrical gestures.
That first trip was so furtive that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wouldn’t even tell reporters where they were going — she wrote it on a notepad. This second trip was tipped off to the press days in advance — and then Trump tweeted about it a day before it occurred.
The first trip was planned to reinforce Trump’s threat, made only three months earlier, that he would rain down “fire and fury” on Kim’s country if it continued testing nuclear weapons. The second was planned so Trump could literally extend a hand to Kim, a man he now calls a friend, and try to restart stalled nuclear negotiations.
On Sunday, 18 months after that first attempt to visit the Korean border — ultimately canceled because Trump’s helicopter could not fly in the poor weather — the president finally got the made-for-TV moment he desired.
The historic event — well-promoted and dramatically staged for the television-conscious president — comes just as Trump launches his reelection bid, boasting that his diplomatic skills stopped what he insists was a near certain war with North Korea.
Trump, wearing his typical dark suit and red tie and walking from the south, met Kim, wearing his traditional Mao suit walking from the north, at the military demarcation line dividing the two countries as cameras snapped furiously. Trump then walked about 20 steps into North Korea, the first sitting U.S. president to make that journey through the demilitarized zone.
“It’s a great day for the world,” Trump boasted to reporters.
Trump seemed to relish the dramatic moment, covered non-stop on cable news, that marked the first time leaders of the United States and North president visited the DMZ together. “Many people, I noticed, from Korea were literally in tears,” he said later.
Jung Pak, a former officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where she led the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis on Korean Peninsula issues, said a DMZ visit appeals to both Trump’s vanity and desire to be a hero.
The DMZ visit was designed “to reinvigorate President Trump’s desire for working with North Korea on the nuclear issue so that we can get momentum going on that,” she said.
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang broke down in February when Trump abruptly cut short his second summit with Kim. The president balked at North Korea’s request to significantly ease U.S. sanctions in exchange for the minimal steps it had taken to denuclearize. Since then, North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests, although it has retained its the pause on nuclear testing it implemented when the two countries began negotiations.
Since the aborted summit, Trump and Kim have kept in touch with an exchange of letters, even as the two sides have not been holding any broader coversations. Most recently, Kim sent Trump what he called a “very friendly letter” for his birthday June 14. Kim said Trump’s reply featured “excellent content” that showed “extraordinary courage,” according to North Korea’s official news agency.
Trump, a senior administration official said, “feels that he has a relationship that will allow the door to remain open.”
“He’s keeping the door open for diplomacy with Kim,” the official added, “but he also has made clear that the nukes have got to go; that he’s looking for the final and fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
In September 2018, Trump at a campaign rally described their relationship this way: “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”
Only three months before Trump attempted his first visit to the DMZ, he had threatened to war with North Korea if Kim — or “Little Rocket Man,” as Trump called him — threatened the United States.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said at the time. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
In November 2017, Trump and his aides planned a secret trip to the DMZ to mark the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election. He and his team began the trek to the DMZ by helicopter only to turn back five minutes before landing because of low visibility. After waiting for nearly an hour to see if the weather would clear, the trip was canceled.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was to accompany Trump on the aborted DMZ trip despite their differing approaches to North Korea at the time — Kim favored engagement, not threats. Moon was waiting at another location near the DMZ when Trump turned around.
“In 2017, [Trump and Moon] could not have been more different,” said Michael Green, a former National Security Council staffer specializing in Asian affairs. “But now, President Moon and President Trump sort of have the same rhetoric, the same vision and dream.”
This time, Trump tweeted a seemingly impromptu invitation to Kim on Saturday while he was still in Japan for the G-20 summit, an annual meeting of the world’s 20 biggest economies, to meet and shake hands.
“A lot of great triumphs have been based on relationships,” Trump said Sunday.
Despite Trump’s insistence that he had only thought of sending the invitation to Kim that morning, the president reportedly had been thinking about it for days. He later told reporters Kim reads his tweets.
Trump, accompanied by Moon, arrived via helicopter at about 2:45 p.m. Sunday, local time, near the cluster of buildings at Panmunjom truce village, where North and South Korean forces are still standing face-to-face, 66 years after the Korean War fighting ended. Kim arrived an hour later.
“Some are saying this meeting was pre-planned but I was very surprised to hear about your offer on the tweet,” Kim said. “I think meeting here, two countries that have a hostile past, we are showcasing to the world that we have a new present and we have a positive meeting going forward.”
Yet the 24 hours before the meeting were filled with suspense as the world waited to see if Kim would accept Trump’s invitation. Trump and Moon confirmed that Kim would travel to the DMZ only minutes before they left for the area.
Trump told Kim that he was glad the North Korean leader showed up, joking that it would have looked bad if he didn’t.
“You made us both look good,” Trump said.