Handshake at the DMZ

History was created on Sunday when US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing the Korean peninsula to enter North Korean and South Korean territory respectively. The historic moment came suddenly. According to Trump, the event was arranged less than 24 hours earlier through an invitation via Twitter. The official version of the event is less dramatic. It appears that following the failed Trump-Kim summit at Hanoi in February, American, North Korean and South Korean diplomats got down to work to make the meeting happen. Still, Trump and Kim deserve credit for having gone along with this effort. The two leaders were expected to exchange only a handshake at the DMZ. They did well not only to take the additional steps into officially hostile territory but also to have an hour-long chat, along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Freedom House. With the historic meeting at the DMZ, Trump and Kim have broken the ice. 

Sceptics have dismissed the handshake at the DMZ as a publicity stunt, yet another instance of Trump’s theatrics. Perhaps it is. However, it is not without significance. It marks the revival of diplomacy in US-North Korea relations. Ties between the two countries, which improved dramatically last year, ground to a halt when talks collapsed at Hanoi. Then, in May, Pyongyang fired a barrage of missiles. It served as a wake-up call. If diplomacy was not revived soon, hopes of a Korean reconciliation would be snuffed out.

Talks are expected in a few weeks. The road forward from the DMZ is strewn with obstacles. Washington and Pyongyang do not yet have a shared definition of what de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula means. While the US defines it as dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, Pyongyang’s definition goes further to include the removal of the US nuclear umbrella over the Korean Peninsula. The two sides also have different approaches to achieving it. North Korea wants a gradual approach in which the US will reward each step it takes towards de-nuclearisation with an equivalent easing of sanctions. The US sees lifting of sanctions as the last step. Hardliners at home are important spoilers that Trump and Kim will have to contend with. It is important, too, that key players like China are not only kept in the loop but included in the process. At the recent G-20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have urged Trump to show flexibility on the question of sanctions on North Korea and reach out more than halfway to address Kim’s concerns. This is advice that the US would do well to heed while being watchful of the progress Pyongyang makes. 


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