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Trump’s Offer to Say ‘Hello’ to Kim at DMZ Presents Risks and Rewards for Both


SEOUL, South Korea — President Trump arrived in Seoul on Saturday evening, seeking another dramatic encounter with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, a meeting that could serve the interests of both men but is unlikely to bring North Korea closer to Mr. Trump’s goal of denuclearization.

Mr. Trump extended an impromptu invitation to Mr. Kim hours before departing from the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, offering in a tweet to meet the North Korean leader at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between the two nations “just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

It was unclear whether Mr. Kim might accept the offer, although North Korea’s official news agency quickly released a statement calling it a “very interesting suggestion.”

Mr. Trump’s long-scheduled trip to South Korea was for a meeting with the country’s president, Moon Jae-in. And as he headed into a dinner with Mr. Moon, Mr. Trump said without elaborating that North Korea had responded to his offer.

“We’re gonna see. They’re working things out right now,” he said of the potential for a border rendezvous with Mr. Kim.

It was the latest evidence that the diplomacy between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, which halted abruptly after a February summit in Hanoi at which Trump officials say Mr. Kim proved inflexible, has regained momentum despite concerns among senior Trump administration officials that Mr. Kim is not negotiating in good faith about denuclearization.

After the collapse of the talks in February, North Korea issued bellicose statements and conducted a provocative short-range weapons test in May.

But earlier this month, Mr. Kim sent Mr. Trump wishes for a happy birthday, to which the American president responded with what he called “a very friendly letter.” North Korea’s official news agency quoted Mr. Kim as saying that the American president’s reply was “excellent content” that showed “extraordinary courage.”

For Mr. Trump, even a brief meeting with Mr. Kim — particularly one along the tense and rarely crossed border between the North and South — would play to his love of never-been-done theater. It would also resurrect a handy story line for his just-launched re-election campaign, in which Mr. Trump plays the role of diplomat and peacemaker.

“I said a long time ago that maybe I’ll be a sleeper on foreign policy,” Mr. Trump noted in a Saturday afternoon news conference in Osaka.

Even a brief handshake meeting could also make sense for Mr. Kim, who many experts — and more than one senior Trump administration official — believe will never willingly give up his nuclear weapons. Mr. Kim’s meetings with Mr. Trump enhance his stature at home and help legitimize one of the world’s most notorious dictators and human-rights offenders.

Mr. Kim may also be motivated by the American political calendar.

“From Kim’s perspective, Trump is still the best possible president to make a deal with, since it is highly unlikely that the next U.S. president would put on the negotiating table big-ticket items that the North has always sought, such as a peace treaty,” said Sue Mi Terry, who served as a National Security Council aide specializing in Korean affairs under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But another encounter could bring risks for both men. Mr. Kim was embarrassed by the breakdown of talks in Hanoi after he had taken a train journey of 70 hours to meet with Mr. Trump. Mr. Kim has said the United States must present “a new calculation” before he would return to formal talks.

In his Saturday news conference, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he knew when he posted his invitation on Twitter that if Mr. Kim didn’t trek the approximately 100 miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to the border, “everyone was going to say, ‘Oh, he got stood up.’”

And even if Mr. Kim does show, Mr. Trump could face increased pressure to turn the personal rapport into tangible action.

Trump’s latest foray into nuclear diplomacy with Mr. Kim comes just after the first anniversary of their initial summit meeting, last June in Singapore, where Mr. Kim made a vague commitment to denuclearization under an unspecified timeline.

Since then, Mr. Kim has halted nuclear weapons tests and the long-range ballistic missile tests that once had Mr. Trump contemplating military action. Yet North Korea over that same period has produced enough uranium and plutonium to fuel a half-dozen new nuclear warheads, according to intelligence estimates.

“A DMZ rendezvous makes a good photo op but comes with no real denuclearization, and legitimizes a human rights abuser,” said Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “If there is no meeting, then Trump raised expectations such that this becomes a setback to the diplomacy.”

Skeptics of diplomacy with Mr. Kim’s regime include Mr. Trump’s own national security adviser, John Bolton, but Mr. Trump has recently said that he has to “temper” Mr. Bolton’s hawkish instincts.

Mr. Trump’s outreach also comes after a period in which his special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, has had little success engaging North Korean diplomats. Mr. Biegun arrived in South Korea late this week, but had not been expected to talk to any North Korean officials.

“The Kim-Trump relationship has become not a lubricant of diplomacy but an impediment to it because Kim refuses to deal with U.S. officials below Trump’s level,” Ms. Terry said.

The outreach to Mr. Kim was welcomed by Mr. Trump’s host here, Mr. Moon, who has worked hard to promote dialogue with the North. President Moon is likely to go with Mr. Trump on his expected visit to the Demilitarized Zone on Sunday afternoon, raising the possibility of a three-way summit that would delight the South Korean leader, who himself once greeted Mr. Kim along the DMZ border.

A meeting with Mr. Kim would expand the list of encounters Mr. Trump has had with foreign strongmen over the past few days. At the G20 summit in Osaka, Mr. Trump had notably friendly interactions with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman; President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil; and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Political considerations aside, an advance-notice DMZ greeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim could test the nerves of even the steeliest Secret Service agents.

When Mr. Trump planned a trip to the DMZ during a 2017 visit to Seoul, his aides went to great lengths to keep the excursion secret. It was not included on his official schedule, and the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, notified the reporters traveling with the president of the plan shortly before their planned departure by holding up a piece of paper with the letters “DMZ” scrawled on it. Ms. Sanders said she had been instructed not to utter the sensitive destination aloud.

Ultimately, thick fog forced Mr. Trump’s helicopter to turn back around.


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