It was a photo op, but one that could lead to concrete results, more so than one might imagine given the two protagonists, both eager for more propaganda material within their own countries. Symbols matter in Asia, and the first 20 steps ever taken by an American president on North Korean soil—difficult as it was to imagine Trump being the one to secure this achievement—might actually help restart the Korean peace process, despite the media’s overhyping and attempts to reduce everything to a social media event.
In Seoul, moreover, rumors are going around that Trump’s now-famous tweet to Kim asking him to meet at the border between the two Koreas was the final outcome of work done behind the scenes by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In that case, the importance of the mini-summit on Sunday would be even greater.
We got confirmation of this from Antonio Fiori, associate professor of Asian history and institutions in Bologna and adjunct professor at Korea University in Seoul. He told us that every single step, however small, in the long and difficult Korean peace process should be welcomed as a positive development, despite the skepticism that now hangs over the US-North Korea relationship, especially after the failure of the second summit in Hanoi.
Of course, we will need to see how the next steps play out, but the mutual invitations exchanged between Trump and Kim for a new meeting, implying that talks are being restarted, could lead to new developments. (Mike Pompeo hinted that a third summit could take place in July.)
There are possible scenarios involving a quick breakthrough that would go beyond the results achieved so far: “The United States may proceed to a relaxation of sanctions, and, in exchange, regardless of who actually makes the first step, the North Koreans might propose more concrete moves to dismantle their nuclear arsenal than anything envisioned in the past. Then, it will probably be possible to advance toward newer and increasingly concrete objectives, so that it will be possible to start a real peace process,” Fiori told us.
One must not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This is why even something like Trump’s short walk on North Korean soil—with a lot of banter exchanged between the American president and the Pyongyang leader—should be understood in the context of a complex process, which is sometimes affected by wider clashes—for instance, the tariff war between the US and China—and thus shows periods of acceleration and sudden stops.
Each “contact,” or meeting, must be viewed in a context that is inevitably prone to breaks in the relationship. Trump’s opponents, like the critics of Moon Jae-in, have focused on the legitimacy that, once again, both Washington and Seoul are conferring upon someone who is, without a doubt, a dictator. But this is the path on which some progress has been made, starting from the summit in Singapore, another historic event.
Finally, one must also take into account China’s view. On Monday, the nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times, always useful for understanding the views circulating at the top of the Chinese Communist Party, welcomed the meeting in the Korean demilitarized zone with cautious optimism, while highlighting—naturally—the importance of China for Kim’s reign: a multilayered message that appeared to grant Kim Jong-un the role of protagonist, while pointing out that the fate of his country depends on economic and political aid from Beijing.
Otherwise, the restarting of the dialogue about denuclearization, lowering the pressure on the “North Korean front,” can only be a welcome development in Beijing, whose focus at the moment is fully absorbed by the need to limit the damage done by the trade war with the United States—and with keeping an eye on what is happening in Hong Kong.