Special to WorldTribune.com
UNITED NATIONS — In an extraordinary and spontaneous summit, President Donald Trump briefly met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un inside North Korea. The historic handshake and discussions between two adversaries, who rattled nuclear sabers merely two years ago, offered a highly symbolic but still decisive meeting on the divided Korean peninsula.
The Panmunjom meeting in Korea’s tense Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) occurred just days after President Trump, among other world leaders met in Osaka, Japan for a successful economic Summit. Since the President was in the region, and later visiting South Korea, the Donald in his spontaneous showman fashion suggested a symbolic meet and greet with the North Korean dictator “for a quick handshake” as a way to revive stalled nuclear nonproliferation talks with the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Prior to the historic meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-In stated, “President Trump is truly the peacemaker on the Korean peninsula.”
Traditionally American presidents visiting the DMZ peered at the other side through binoculars. I can recall my own visits viewing a bleak horizon, hardened Military Police and small stark buildings in the Joint Security Area which all underscore a dour setting.
There’s still a million-man military standoff along the 160-mile long DMZ at the 38th parallel which has divided South and North Korea since 1945. Since then, two distinctly different political systems have governed the Korean nation, one free and one totalitarian.
Long described as a living Cold War relic the once frozen DMZ has seen a political thaw in recent years. South Korean moves towards political rapprochement with the North and efforts to downshift the dangerous standoff just 30 miles north of the sprawling and prosperous South Korean capital city Seoul have created hope for if not actual change.
To be sure, Trump’s impromptu visit and political outreach remains a hallmark of his iconoclastic diplomatic style, yet it equally offers the possibility to finally break the standoff on the divided peninsula.
The Korean War started when North Korean forces under Kim’s Jong-Un’s grandfather, invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Responding with deft alacrity, American Ambassador Warren Austin moved quickly to pass a UN Security Council resolution condemning the communist invasion and moreover, also then assembled a multinational military force to repel the aggression.
Sixteen countries, among them Britain, Canada, France and Turkey, joined the U.S. in this bloody but now forgotten conflict.
The Korean War ended before most Americans living today were even born, 66 years ago in July 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, a new Queen Elizabeth II had ascended the throne in Britain just a month earlier, and nobody had yet heard of a singer called Elvis.
But in the Summer of 1953, a Truce stopped the Korean conflict. There’s still no formal peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Historically the Korean peninsula formed the vortex of competing geopolitical power interests; China, Japan, Russia and the USA.
Shortly after the handshake with North Korea’s communist ruler, President Trump addressed U.S. forces at Osan Air Base to reaffirm the alliance with South Korea. “We Go Together” Trump stated, reiterating the symbolic chant of the seven decade old ROK-U.S. military Alliance. The President stressed, “For decades, the South Korea-U.S. alliance has advanced peace and security in this region and far beyond. Today our partnership is stronger than ever before.”
Interestingly the unexpected DMZ meeting did not discuss economic sanctions relief related to Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation.
Clearly the North Korean leader wants diplomatic flexibility to move out of the political shadow of Beijing whose role has long determined the fate of the DPRK. While both Washington and Seoul have allowed for some latitude, the North nonetheless remains economically and ideologically dependent on “Big Brother.”
Seoul’s authoritative Korea Times newspaper stated editorially, “We hope Trump and Kim will reach a grand deal to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Their ‘handshake of peace’ should be translated into complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.”
Though the “handshake summit” has renewed Great Expectations over the DPRK’s denuclearization, there’s a long road ahead to resume stalled nuclear talks and sign both a Peace Treaty and achieve verifiable disarmament. Now’s the time to seek substance over style. That includes the president pressing for human rights transparency in communist North Korea.
While last year’s Trump/Kim Singapore summit stopped the clock, it did not solve the problem. Though there have been no North Korean nuclear tests or long-range missile firings, the threat remains real. It’s good we’re talking.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]