World News

Trump Wants Talks With North Korea in DMZ, a Cold War Holdover

Posted April 30, 2018 9:14 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday fanned expectations for his meeting with Kim Jong Un, saying he would like his talks with the North Korean leader to take place at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas because “there’s a great celebration to be had on the site” if the negotiations are successful.

In a sign of his high hopes and grand ambitions for the encounter, Trump is pushing back against advisers who are proposing more neutral sites, like Singapore. He would prefer to meet at the Peace House, which sits in the 2-1/2-mile-wide strip of land — ringed by razor wire and heavily armed guard posts — that is one of the Cold War’s last frontiers.

Trump said he and Kim could make history on that scarred ground, ending nearly seven decades of military conflict and ridding North Korea of its nuclear arsenal. His enthusiasm has fueled hopes of a genuine breakthrough with one of the world’s most reclusive regimes, even as it has unnerved those who are suspicious of North Korea’s intentions.

At a Rose Garden news conference, Trump marveled at the recent rush of diplomatic gestures from Kim, a 34-year-old dictator with whom he was trading threats of nuclear war only four months ago.

Kim, he said, “has been very open, and very straightforward so far.” He praised Kim for sticking to a pledge not to test nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, and for promising to shut down a nuclear site.

“The United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean Peninsula, that can get rid of the nuclear weapons, can create so many good things, so many positive things, and peace and safety for the world,” he declared during a joint news conference with the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari.

Trump added a familiar caveat that the whole effort could still fall apart. But as talk of a Nobel Peace Prize for the president has begun — stirred both by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and by chanting supporters at a weekend rally in Michigan — the president clearly senses that a history-making achievement is within his grasp.

He briskly dismissed a question about whether ripping up the Iran nuclear deal — as many believe he will do when he faces the next deadline of May 12 to act on it — would jeopardize the prospects for an agreement with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

“I think it sends the right message,” he said.

The president acknowledged that some on his staff had qualms about holding the meeting in the Demilitarized Zone. For weeks, the White House had played down that option, in part because aides did not like the optics of Trump traveling to Kim’s doorstep. Instead, they have discussed sites as far-flung as Singapore, Vietnam, Mongolia and even a Navy warship anchored in the Pacific.

But all that was before the vivid images last Friday of Kim greeting Moon at the line of demarcation between North and South, and then sitting down with him in the Peace House.

South Korea built the three-story, gray-stone edifice in the border village of Panmunjom to hold meetings with officials from the North. For years, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have stopped there during their visits to the Demilitarized Zone. But Trump missed his chance to visit it during his trip to South Korea last November when heavy fog forced his helicopter to turn around shortly before he was to land.

“Some people maybe don’t like the look of that, and some people like it very much,” the president said. “There’s something I like about it, because you’re there, if things work out, there’s a great celebration to be had on the site, not in a third-party country.”

The Demilitarized Zone has other advantages. The Secret Service is used to securing the site for presidents, and security could be an issue in other countries, like Mongolia, while there are questions about Kim’s ability to travel long distances, given the rickety condition of his aircraft. Singapore is safe and politically inoffensive, but it is still 3,074 miles from Pyongyang.

Trump first floated the Peace House in a morning tweet that felt like a trial balloon or even an exercise in crowdsourcing.

“Numerous countries are being considered for the MEETING,” the president wrote, “but would Peace House/Freedom House, on the Border of North & South Korea, be a more Representative, Important and Lasting site than a third party country? Just asking!”

Trump’s enthusiasm for the meeting with Kim has drawn expressions of concern from former officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations. They fear that North Korea will exploit the president’s hunger for a win to lure the United States into a protracted negotiation that will leave it with at least some of its nuclear weapons but vitiate the sanctions regime that Trump helped build.

South Korea, they note, has already established a commission to study economic projects that it could pursue with the North — an early indicator of how the sanctions could crumble over time.

Others, however, dismiss those fears as naysaying from officials who failed in their own efforts to deal with North Korea.

“We can’t have it both ways — hating him for almost starting a war and hating him for having a summit,” said Joel S. Wit, an expert on North Korea at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who was involved in diplomacy during the Clinton administration that led to a nuclear agreement in 1994.

“There are certainly dangers, given his style, in a summit,” he said, “but I prefer that to the possibility we were facing last year of armed conflict since it at least gives us the possibility of a peaceful future.” For Trump, the bid for a statesman’s mantle also appeals to his political base. When he started talking about the coming negotiation with Kim during a rally in Washington, Michigan, on Saturday, scattered cries of “Nobel! Nobel!” began and then grew into a sustained chant.

“That’s very nice, thank you,” Trump replied. “Nobel,” he said with a chuckle, as if testing the ring of it. “I just want to get the job done.”

Trump reiterated on Monday that his ultimate goal is to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. But he has shown far more openness than previous presidents to the concept of a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War. North Korea has long pushed for such a treaty, and the current South Korean government favors it as well.

Signing even a preliminary peace document in the Demilitarized Zone, people who know Trump said, would give him an unforgettable moment in a place saturated with history. Some experts said that this theater, rather than the grinding business of nuclear disarmament, is what appeals to Trump.

“I was thinking about this summit like a former NSC staffer,” said Michael J. Green, who was an Asia expert in the National Security Council of George W. Bush. “I need to think of it like a WWF tournament.”