North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump walk together in the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump stepped onto North Korean soil in a historic first Sunday as he met Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un in a moment of high diplomatic drama on the world’s last Cold War frontier.

Moments after becoming the only sitting US president to set foot inside North Korea, Trump brought Kim back over the dividing line for a meeting where they agreed to start working-level talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

Trump also said he had invited the young leader to the White House “anytime he wants to do it”.

“It’s a great day for the world and it’s an honor for me to be here,” Trump said. “A lot of great things are happening.”

As they sat down for discussions, Kim said their “handshake of peace” in a location that was “the symbol of the division of north and south” showed that “we are willing to put the past behind us.”

Kim said Sunday that his “wonderful” relationship Trump would enable the two longtime enemies to get over obstructions, with their nuclear talks at a stalemate.

“I am convinced our relationship will enable us to overcome barriers standing in the way,” said Kim, adding that the close relationship of the two leaders had enabled a meeting to happen “just overnight”.

Trump told Kim he was “proud” to walk across the border.

“I was proud to step over that line,” he said as they sat down for discussions after shaking hands in the DMZ in an historic encounter.

According to Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, those on the sidelines for the handshake included: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, the US conservative commentator and broadcaster Tucker Carlson, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho and his deputy Choe Song Hui, as well as the North Korean singer and Hyon Song Wol.

Ivanka Trump had a slightly less glowing take than her father on North Korea after she and her husband, Jared Kushner, stepped out of one of the blue houses alongside the demarcation line.

Margaret Talev from Bloomberg asked her: “How was North Korea?”

To which the US president’s daughter replied: “Surreal”.

The impromptu meeting in the DMZ – after Trump issued an invitation on Twitter on Saturday – came with negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington at a deadlock.

Their first summit took place in a blaze of publicity in Singapore last year but produced a vaguely-worded pledge about denuclearization. A second meeting in Vietnam in February intended to put flesh on those bones broke up without agreement.

Contact between the two sides has since been minimal, with Pyongyang issuing frequent criticisms of the US position, but the two leaders exchanged a series of letters before Trump turned to Twitter to issue his offer to meet at the DMZ.

Trump’s entry onto North Korean soil – which he said was uncertain until the last moment – is an extraordinary sequel to the scene at Kim’s first summit with Moon Jae-in last year, when the young leader invited the South Korean president to walk over the Military Demarcation Line, as the border is officially known.

Moon seized on last year’s Winter Olympics to broker the process between Pyongyang and Washington, after tensions soared in 2017 as the North carried out multiple missile launches and its biggest nuclear test to date, while Trump and Kim traded mutual insults and threats of war.

The significance of the meeting in the no-man’s-land often referred to as the world’s last Cold War frontier was “obvious”, said Stimson Centre Asia analyst David Kim.

“It’s historic for Trump to be the first US President enter North Korea soil, historic for Moon to meet, albeit briefly, with both leaders.”

The meeting had the “potential to kick-start stalled negotiations”, he told AFP, but added that working-level discussions would be crucial.

“What we need is substance, not theatrics.”

The Hanoi summit foundered amid disagreements on what the North – which has carried out six nuclear tests and developed missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland – would be willing to give up in exchange for relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with RAND Corporation, said the North’s “gravitational force has pulled Trump across the DMZ”, calling it an “alluring elixir of wile, threatening rhetoric, stalling, and dangling of the remote possibility of resuming dialogue”.

Such a meeting has long been sought by the North, but “Kim didn’t have to lift a finger to get Trump to cross the DMZ”, she added. “It was, in all appearances, by Trump’s volition.”

The DMZ has been a regular stop for US presidents visiting the South, a security ally, although Trump’s helicopter was forced to turn back by fog in 2017, while Panmunjom saw the first two summits between Moon and Kim last year.

North Korea on Monday described the weekend DMZ meeting as “historic” and “amazing.”

The two leaders agreed to “resume and push forward productive dialogues for making a new breakthrough in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

Meanwhile, in the US, top Democratic White House contenders offered scathing criticism of the meeting, accusing Trump of damaging America’s standing and making unanswered concessions.

The campaign of former vice president Joe Biden, a leading candidate in the race to face off against Trump in 2020, said the president had “yet again fawned over Kim Jong Un – to whom he’s made numerous concessions for negligible gain.”

“Trump’s coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests is one of the most dangerous ways he’s diminishing us on the world stage,” campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.

Elizabeth Warren, another leader in the Democratic field, also took aim at Trump.

“Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator,” she tweeted.

“Instead, we should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights,” Warren said.

Some White House hopefuls gave a guarded welcome to the Trump-Kim meeting.

Senator Bernie Sanders, also a top 2020 candidate, said he had “no problem” with Trump’s decision to meet with Kim, a moment of high diplomatic drama in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

“Sitting down with our adversaries is not a bad idea,” Sanders said on ABC’s This Week. “I wish [Trump] would do that in the Middle East as well, and in the Persian Gulf.”

Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Amy Klobuchar, told CNN’s State of the Union that “of course, as a country, we want this to work. I think any discussions are helpful.”

But she cautioned: “I don’t think we know if it works until there is results.”

Fellow 2020 hopeful Beto O’Rourke was more scathing – charging Trump had “added legitimacy to Kim Jong Un” without significant concessions in return.

“Despite three years of almost bizarre foreign policy from this president, this country is no safer when it comes to North Korea,” the Democratic ex-congressman said on CBS’s Face The Nation.

– Agence France-Presse

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