U.S. President Donald Trump said early Sunday that his schedule while in South Korea would include a visit with U.S. troops and a trip to the Demilitarized Zone.
It did not mention, however, the invitation Trump had sent through social media on Saturday, in which he tweeted an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet him at the border "to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!"
Sunday morning, Trump plans to address South Korean business leaders. He will then travel to the presidential residence to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
He will travel to the DMZ Sunday afternoon, and then address U.S. troops at Osan Air Base in South Korea, before departing for the U.S.
Speaking to reporters at the Group of 20 summit in Japan, Trump said he decided Saturday morning to “put out a feeler” to meet Kim, adding such a meeting would last only two minutes.
“We’ll see each other for two minutes,” Trump said. “That’s all we can. But that will be fine.”
Trump later said he would feel “very comfortable” stepping across the border into North Korea. If that happened, it would be the first time a sitting U.S. president visited North Korea.
Kim has not responded to Trump’s offer. But North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, called the invitation an “interesting suggestion.”
“We see it as a very interesting suggestion, but we have not received an official proposal in this regard,” Choe said in a statement published in the official Korean Central News Agency.
“It would serve as another meaningful occasion in further deepening the personal relations between the two leaders and advancing the bilateral relations,” Choe added.
Another meeting between Trump and Kim could help reset stalled nuclear talks. But a meeting without substance risks becoming theatrics and would appear to further legitimize the North Korean leader, many analysts warn.
“The DMZ is too consequential a venue to be used simply as backdrop for a photo op,” said Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.
Trump and Kim met in Singapore last June and in Vietnam in February. Since Vietnam, working-level negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have broken down because of disagreement over how to pace sanctions relief with the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
In recent weeks, Trump and Kim have exchanged personal letters, raising hopes the talks may get back on track. But it isn’t clear how additional top-level diplomacy can advance the talks, as neither side appears to have softened their negotiating position.
A key indicator of progress is whether North Korean counterparts meet with U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Progress on inter-Korean relations and denuclearization requires that the Kim regime agree to working-level talks to negotiate next steps,” Easley said. Absent substantive talks, further summits with Kim “run the risk of appearing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” he added.
Meeting at JSA?
U.S. officials haven’t said where along the 250-kilometer Demilitarized Zone Trump intended to visit.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) has long been mentioned as a possible venue for a Trump-Kim meeting. The JSA, also known as the Panmunjom border village, is the only spot along the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers can stand face to face.
Past U.S. presidents have used visits to the DMZ to deliver messages on strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance, to pay respect to the troops, and to demonstrate a symbolic show of resolve against North Korea.
“It is absolutely not the place to praise his ‘friend’ Kim, to complain about ‘freeloading’ allies, or to muse about withdrawing U.S. troops,” said Russel, the former State Department official who is now a vice president at the Asia Society.
While Trump’s language may differ from that of past presidents, some analysts welcomed a more conciliatory approach.
“While no major agreements will be signed, both sides can reaffirm their commitment to dialogue and diplomacy, essentially resetting the table for a future deal in the weeks and months to come,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
DMZ visit planned ahead of time?
In 2017 during his first visit to South Korea as president, Trump canceled a surprise stop at the DMZ after heavy fog grounded the helicopters that were to take him there.
Bad weather is again a possibility, with the onset of the rainy season in South Korea. However, because of the possibility of a summit with Kim, Trump could choose to take a motorcade to the DMZ, if the weather becomes an issue.
Trump’s visit to the DMZ is less spontaneous than the president suggests. In an interview Monday with the Washington-based newspaper and website The Hill, Trump acknowledged a likely visit to the DMZ, adding he “might” want to meet Kim there.
However, White House officials asked the website to delay the publication of those remarks, citing security concerns.
Before leaving Washington, Trump said he would “not quite” meet with Kim, though he said he may talk with him in a “different form.”
Earlier this week, a North Korean state media article said Kim was “seriously contemplating” the “interesting” contents of a recent letter from Trump.
In a statement, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said “nothing has been finalized,” adding it continues to call for more dialogue with North Korea.
The Financial Times reported late Saturday that White House officials were drafting an “official invitation” for Kim to meet Trump at the DMZ.
It isn’t clear whether South Korea's Moon would also attend any meeting at the DMZ.
There appear to be wide gaps between North and South Korea on how to proceed with nuclear talks.
Although Trump and Kim agreed in Singapore to work “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” U.S. officials have acknowledged that Washington and Pyongyang do not agree on what “denuclearization” means.
North Korean officials have made clear they do not see “denuclearization” as Pyongyang unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons.
Instead, the North wants to see the United States take reciprocal steps, including ending U.S. and U.N. sanctions and providing various security guarantees.
In Hanoi, Kim offered to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for the lifting of most U.N. sanctions. Trump rejected that offer, insisting that Kim agree to give up his entire nuclear weapons program before receiving sanctions relief.
Kim has given the United States until the end of the year to offer what it sees as an adequate counterproposal.