What is Trump up to, meeting Kim Jong-un at the DMZ?

As you would expect, there is precious little media enthusiasm for today’s historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarized Zone. Yet, even the New York Times, while engaging in snark…

Even in this symbolic moment of reconciliation, Mr. Trump seemed to dwell on his grievances about his media coverage, repeating complaints he has made several times over the last day that he has not received enough credit for de-escalating tensions on the peninsula

… recognized the nature of the personal diplomacy underway:

President Trump became the first sitting American commander in chief to set foot in North Korea on Sunday as he greeted Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone and the two agreed to send their negotiators back to the table to seek a long-elusive nuclear agreement.

Met in the middle by a beaming Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump stepped across a low concrete marker at 3:46 p.m. local time and walked 20 steps to the base of a building on the North Korean side for an encounter carried live on international television — an unprecedented, camera-friendly demonstration of friendship intended to revitalize stalled talks.

“It is good to see you again,” a seemingly exuberant Mr. Kim told the president through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.”

“Big moment, big moment,” Mr. Trump told him.

Kim invites Trump across the borderline (YouTube screen grab)

Ostensibly, the meeting was first broached only 24 hours ago. Given the fact that warm letters have been exchanged between the two leaders, it seems unlikely that the meeting was quite that spontaneous. But almost certainly, finalization of the meeting had to wait until Trump met with Xi Jin-ping in Osaka, because North Korea is an important piece on the chessboard of US-China relations. And it is worth noting that while many regard North Korea as a mere pawn of Beijing, North Korea’s national interests are far from identical with China’s and Trump’s move towards détente with North Korea threatens China’s influence on that nation. That chessboard has at least three dimensions.

So, what is Trump trying to accomplish?

He has already re-started the de-nuclearization talks. Actually, getting North Korea to agree tpo give up its nukes is extremely difficult, given what happened to Gaddafi of Libya when Hillary Clinton was SecState: “We came, we saw, he died.”

But the effort has to be made, recognizing that Kim Jong-un, while a dictator, could well be deposed by those controlling the military and police, who are wedded to their own positions of power. Trump must help Kim structure a set of incentives for the other members of his country’s power elite.  

The two men met with very few others present, for nearly an hour, in a building on the south side of the border, In South Korean territory. South Korea’s leftist president, Moon Jae-in, is thrilled:

Mr. Moon, who has staked his presidency on improving relations with the North, showered Mr. Trump with praise for reaching out, declaring that “the flower of peace is truly blossoming” and describing himself as “very overwhelmed with emotion” about the development.

“President Trump is the maker of peace on the Korean Peninsula, you really are the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said. “I hope that this meeting with Chairman Kim at Panmunjom will bring hope to the people of South and North Korea and it will be a milestone in the history of humankind toward peace.”

There is limited downside to this meeting, though critics will castigate Trump for his flowery prose about the murderous dictator. The goal is gigantic, transitioning North Korea out of its rogue state status and into the “family of nations.” It will not be accomplished quickly, but rather step-by-step, with incentives and benefits accruing to those who matter in that regime. And this transition must be accomplished at the same time China is being pressured and incentivized into behaving like a mature nation, not a brigand thief of intellectual property and practitioner of mercantilist trade.

Trump, by setting foot on North Korean territory, has shown he has guts. Pictures of Kim’s warm welcome affect the North Korean public’s understanding of their nation’s changing attitude toward the United States and very slightly help constrain possible coup-plotters, who are captives of the cult of personality built for generations around the Kim family as divine presences, gifted to the Korean nation.

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