SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump on Sunday took a step no other sitting American president had before, crossing into North Korea with its leader, Kim Jong Un — a theatrical gesture meant to kick-start stalled nuclear negotiations between the two countries.
And, after meeting privately for nearly an hour, the two leaders pledged to do just that.
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“This was a great day,” Trump told reporters. “It will be even more historic if something comes out [of it].”
It was a made-for-TV moment for the reality show-groomed president that unfolded at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Trump approached the border from the south, while Kim approached from the north. The two met at the line demarcating the two countries, grinned and shook hands.
“It is good to see you again,” Kim said through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.”
“Big moment,” Trump said. “Big progress.”
Trump said Kim then asked him if he would like to cross into North Korea. Trump said he would be honored and walked about 20 steps into the country.
The two leaders then decamped to Freedom House, a small building on the southern side of the border that has been used for occasional talks between North and South Korean officials for two decades. They emerged 53 minutes later and announced they would appoint teams to restart nuclear negotiations.
“This has a lot of significance because it means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past and try to create a new future, so it’s a very courageous and determined act,” Kim told reporters.
Trump then invited Kim to the White House, which would mark an even more dramatic first.
But it remains to be seen whether the grand gesture leads to any progress in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, Trump’s long-stated goal.
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang broke down in February when Trump abruptly cut short his second summit with Kim, balking at a request that the U.S. significantly ease sanctions in exchange for the minimal steps Pyongyang had taken to denuclearize. Trump balked at doing that and stopped the conversations. Since then, North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests, although it has continued the pause on nuclear testing implemented when the two countries began negotiations.
Trump arrived at the DMZ by helicopter at about 2:45 p.m. Sunday, local time, near a cluster of buildings at Panmunjom truce village where North and South Korean forces still stand face-to-face 66 years after the end of fighting in the Korean War. Kim arrived an hour later.
Trump was accompanied by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Earlier, when Trump and Moon announced the meeting would take place, the South Korean leader called Trump “the maker of peace on the Korean peninsula.”
Trump stressed that point repeatedly to reporters on Sunday, arguing that North Korea has become more peaceful since he and Kim began their negotiations.
“There’s been a tremendous difference,” he said. “There was great conflict before. Now it’s been extremely peaceful. It’s a different world.”
Previous presidents have trekked to the DMZ, but none has met with the leader of either North Korea or South Korea while there.
Trump extended his invitation to meet Kim at the border only a day before it happened. He tweeted out the idea on Saturday while still in Japan for a G-20 summit, an annual meeting of the world’s 20 biggest economies. The president insisted he had only just thought of making the offer that morning, but he had been privately musing about the possibility to reporters earlier that week.
North Korea welcomed the invitation, and the two sides spent the next 24 hours scrambling to hash out the logistics of having the two leaders meet at one of the most tightly secured borders in the world.
“I believe that if a North-U.S. summit is realized on the line dividing Korea, as President Trump wishes, it will become another opportunity to deepen the friendship that exists between the two heads of state and to improve relations of the two nations,” said Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, in a statement carried on the official Korean News Agency.