One Small Step for a President, One Giant Leap for Pyongyang

Trump's unexpected gesture may have been the only way to get talks back on track.

U.S. President Donald Trump steps onto the northern side of the military demarcation line that divides North and South Korea, next to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone of Panmunjom on June 30.
U.S. President Donald Trump steps onto the northern side of the military demarcation line that divides North and South Korea, next to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone of Panmunjom on June 30. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump has found a gesture that could create a breakthrough with Pyongyang: walking across the border into North Korea. But whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will respond with the detailed negotiations the Americans need is still up in the air. The collapse of the Hanoi summit between the two leaders in February created an impasse. Getting past it was going to require the Americans offering something symbolic, and the North Koreans offering something technical. Sunday, on the border between North and South Korea, the two sides may have done just that.

The Hanoi talks broke down in part because the North Korean side was not prepared to discuss the details of denuclearization in a way that was meaningful enough for the American side. The North Korean working-level negotiators were not empowered to discuss details, leaving it up to the leaders. This turned out to be far too late—and with too much uncertainty left in the process, Trump walked away from the table.

The way in which Trump walked was a small catastrophe for the North Koreans. It was embarrassing to have had Kim go all the way to Vietnam on his special train and leave without a deal. This clearly caused upheaval in Pyongyang, as North Korean policymakers hashed out who was responsible, what approach might now be viable with the United States, and other matters.

For months there was no official communication with the United States. Attempts by various groups to hold Track 2 talks—unofficial discussions between academics or nongovernment analysts—were mostly rebuffed by Pyongyang. North Korea also delayed other meetings and projects in cooperation with foreign groups. The country had kind of retreated into a turtle shell.

It was going to take a powerful gesture by the United States to unlock this state of affairs, but it was unclear what it could be. Limited sanctions relief wasn’t politically possible in Washington, given the lack of progress on denuclearization. Trump formally suggesting another summit would have been pilloried in the press and in Congress. Either of those options would be too risky, even for Trump, who enjoys defying convention. Sending an envoy such as Special Representative Stephen Biegun would perhaps not have been enough, and it would have carried the expectation of detailed negotiations.

Donald Trump, in his inimitable fashion, found a way, with some help from South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim himself. On Saturday local time, Trump tweeted that he’d be willing to meet Kim at the border and “shake his hand.” He then suggested to Moon at the G-20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, that they should try to make it happen during Trump’s post-G-20 visit to South Korea.

North Korea quickly responded that an official invitation would be welcomed, Biegun then hurriedly met his counterpart at the Demilitarized Zone, and the plan to meet seemed set. On Sunday, when Trump and Kim came together in Panmunjom, they both emphasized the spontaneous nature of the meeting, but the signs were there that all three leaders, including Moon, wanted to take advantage of Trump’s planned visit to Seoul.

First, earlier in June, Trump and Kim exchanged letters. Last week, Kim, through the North Korean press, described the letter he received as “excellent.” Trump described the letter he got earlier as “beautiful.” South Korean officials kept hinting at a potential fourth meeting between Moon and Kim. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, came to the border to deliver a message of condolence for the funeral of a former South Korean first lady.

All this set up expectations that something might be possible while Trump was in South Korea. But in the end, his willingness to go the border and step over the line, taking a brief stroll on North Korean soil, was the symbolic act that the North Koreans needed.

The fact that the two leaders agreed to have working-level talks proceed imminently suggests that Kim gave Trump what the United States needed: a promise that his team would be willing and able to discuss some of the early stage technical details of denuclearization. At the least, this would mean giving up the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which produces all of North Korea’s plutonium and tritium and some of its uranium. After Hanoi, the North Koreans know that the Americans will want to see what they call “Yongbyon plus alpha” and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has called “Yongbyon plus one.”

Rigidity and stubbornness on either side could still prevail. They could agree on a price for Yongbyon, and then the North Koreans could back away from it. The U.S. side might demand a clearly defined end state before discussing Yongbyon, which the North Koreans would struggle to accept. They might not be able to agree on the “plus alpha.” If talks bog down, the North Koreans might retreat into a long period without communication. There are many hurdles, and the stakes are high: There will probably not be another chance for a “surprise summit” again if the working-level talks falter too badly.

The failure of Hanoi cost the denuclearization and peace process dearly in terms of lost time and momentum. But in a way, that summit was only the beginning of nuclear negotiations. Real details weren’t on the table before. Now, following the semi-impromptu third summit, both sides are ready to continue practical negotiations at the working level.

Problems are sure to continue, but Sunday was an important breakthrough and gives room for optimism. And perhaps it couldn’t have happened any other way.

Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at APARC, Stanford University.