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Trump strolls through N. Korean minefield

June 30, 2019

More progress has been made to end the Korean conflict under US President Donald Trump than in 60 years. If Trump's unconventional approach secures peace, he deserves recognition for it, writes DW's Alexander Freund.

Donald Trump stepping into North Korea next to Kim Jong Un
Image: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It is fascinating to see the ease with which US President Donald Trump overcomes the seemingly insurmountable barrier to North Korea and suddenly gets the ball rolling again towards resolving the Korean conflict. 

On a Twitter a day earlier, Trump, noting he was already in the neighborhood, wondered if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might fancy a quick hi-how-you-doing photo op at the demilitarized zone.

And, of course, Kim gratefully accepted the proposal. After all, the supposedly cordial relationship between Trump and Kim had cooled noticeably after the failed summit of Hanoi. Then the North Korean leader fired a few rockets into the sky to draw attention to back to himself.

Can I drop in for a quick visit?

So the two leaders met in Panmunjom, the improbable place where North Korean and Allied troops observe each other suspiciously and a place that symbolizes the absurdity of the deadlocked conflict.

Alexander Freund
DW's Alexander Freund

And, just as impulsively, Trump asked Kim during the meeting if he could cross over the border to North Korea for a bit. The visibly astonished Kim said it would be a great honor for him. And just like that, the first sitting president of the United States visited North Korea.

There you go, it's as easy as that. What's the big deal? The message is simple: Don't spend your time mulling things over, just do it. 

Had a US president from the Democratic Party ever dared to do what Trump did, he would have been lynched by the conservatives at home: How could anyone only reward such a regime without any concessions! Traitor!

A step forward, literally

But Trump just does it. He takes everyone by surprise and, literally, takes a step toward ending decades of confrontation.

Equally impulsively, Trump expressed an earnest willingness to engage with Kim immediately upon taking office. And why not try it. Yes, at the first summit in Singapore the president exaggerated the buddy-buddy nature of relations with his new "friend Kim." The North Korean leader, of course, remains an unpredictable despot, but at least a promising line of conversation got underway.

The following talks on the South Korean side went equally as well. Fortunately, South Korean President Moon Ja-in got back into the picture. Moon has been hard at work behind the scenes to ensure that the essential line of communication remains intact.

All three leaders agreed to develop a working-level approach the near future to get the deadlocked talks moving again and to resolve contentious issues. The declared goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and finally a peace agreement between North Korea and the Allied forces.

Sanctions to remain

But in order to keep sufficient pressure on and ensure that North Korea is seriously prepared to negotiate, the tough sanctions imposed on the North will remain in place. Trump may seem naïve, but he knows how to make a deal.

Oh and, naturally, Trump let his astonished friend Kim know that should he ever have the time or desire, he is welcome to pay Washington a visit.

It all sounds straightforward: The big boys get to know each other, mark their territory, spend some time feeling each other out and then sit down and solve all the little problems.

But it's not quite that simple: Kim, who was visibly surprised, has skillfully improved his negotiating position in recent months. He knows that the South Korean president has a significant interest in a peaceful solution and is willing to do a lot to reach it.

Kim also got some strategically important backing, not only from Russian President Vladimir Putin but, above all, from China, the North's protective power. After visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing several times, Kim managed to get the second most important actor in world politics to pay a state visit to North Korea just before the G20 summit.

Xi Jinping in North Kkorea with Kim Jong Un
Kim got come political cover from China's president just ahead of the G20 summitImage: Reuters/KCNA

Demonstrative solidarity with China

In North Korea, Xi not only promised his support to the beleaguered state, the Chinese president also prompted Trump to resume dialogue with Kim. After all, the trade conflict between China and the US is causing enough headaches for both sides — and the global economy — so no one really needs another conflict in the region.

As much as Trump's volatility or unpredictability keeps the world on its toes, when it comes to the Korean peninsula, the president's unconventional approach has achieved more in a few months than occurred in the decades before he took office.

If, in the end, a viable agreement is reached that pleases the entire region, then this oft-rebuked president will deserve at least some international appreciation.

Sometimes an unconventional approach is what's needed to improve the world. As they say: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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