GP Insights

GP Insights # 99, 6 July 2019

East Asia: Trump crosses Korean Demilitarized Zone
Sourina Bej

What happened? 

On 30 June Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to cross into North Korea walking next to Kim Jong-un in the demilitarised zone. Trump has earlier in the day arrived in Seoul for talks with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in after attending the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. It was during this summit he had made the Twitter invitation to Kim making a seemingly spur-of-the-moment desire to meet the leader. However, what was intended to be an impromptu exchange of pleasantries had later turned into a 50-minute meeting. 


What is the background? 

This new diplomatic approach to North Korea comes since the fall of 2017 when Trump had mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and promised to “totally destroy” North Korea if it didn’t stop developing a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile which is a threat to US shores. Pyongyang, on the other hand, had responded by calling him a ‘mentally deranged dotard.’ While the Singapore summit had achieved little and just little more than a pledge from Pyongyang to suspend nuclear and long-range missile testing, Kim has remained frustrated after the failed Hanoi summit in February this year. In addition to firing some short-range rockets, he had also made sure that the envoys to Washington meet their due ends for failing the talks. Kim’s image got a boost after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang earlier last month and now with Trump’s visit, it has been taken further.  

What does it mean? 

But was the visit a surprise to both the leaders. Not as much. Trump had just delivered to the North Korean leader a degree of global recognition and acceptance which Kim was hoping after the Hanoi fiasco. This visit had come after much deliberation from Trump about what he would gain as he heads home into his 2020 re-election campaign. The President is rightly aware that he needs to make few good choices on his negotiating and transactional skills, after all, that’s his signature tones and shifts in the US foreign policy. Thus, on 20 June when he restarted the faltering US-China trade talks in a meeting with Xi Jinping, it was in line with this thought. And later in the same day when he tweeted, “Great friendships have been made,” he was focused on the need to show the home audience that something has been done. In 2016 he had promised the electorate that the US is going to win much that it is going to be sick and tired of winning. But after Singapore nothing much has reached in the nuclear deal or denuclearization aspect, relationship with China is still stuck even after almost a year of the trade escalation, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership didn’t mean it was America First and lastly, in West Asia, in spite of withdrawing from JCPOA the sanctions hasn't worked much in Iran adhering to the limited nuclear built up. It is in this context that the visit assumes significance.

Also, it is noteworthy that Trump has designated Stephen Biegun as the lead US negotiator on the renewed talks with North Korea as Biegun has in the past favoured a more phased approach than National Security Advisor John Bolton and other hawks. Does this mean he is now looking at more stable solutions and results than outright high tempered approach?

Sourina Bej is currently a Research Associate with the ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at sourinabej92@gmail.com

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