U.S. President Donald Trump says he is willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, “just to shake his hand and say hello.”

Trump made the offer in a tweet just hours ahead of landing in South Korea on Saturday.

After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon). While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2019

Speaking to reporters at the Group of 20 summit in Japan, Trump said he decided Saturday morning to “put out a feeler” to meet Kim, adding that such a meeting would only last for two minutes.

Kim has not responded to Trump’s offer. In a statement to reporters, South Korea’s presidential Blue House says “nothing has been finalized yet,” adding that Seoul continues to call for more dialogue with North Korea.

It isn’t clear whether South Korean President Moon Jae-in would also attend any meeting at the DMZ.

FILE – U.S. special representative to North Korea Steve Biegun speaks after being named by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington, Aug. 23, 2018.

Indicator of progress

It would be the third meeting between Trump and Kim, who met in Singapore last June and in Vietnam in February.

Since Vietnam, working-level negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have broken down because of disagreement over how to pace sanctions relief with the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

In recent weeks, Trump and Kim have exchanged personal letters, raising hopes the talks may get back on track. But it isn’t clear more top-level diplomacy can advance the talks, because neither side appears to have softened their negotiating position.

Even though most eyes will be on a possible Trump-Kim meeting, a key indicator of progress is whether North Korean counterparts meet with U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun, says Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Progress on inter-Korean relations and denuclearization requires that the Kim regime agree to working-level talks to negotiate next steps,” Easley says. Absent substantive talks, further summits with Kim “run the risk of appearing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” he adds.

FILE – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in walk together at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018.

Meeting at JSA?

It isn’t clear where along the 250-kilometer-long DMZ Trump intends to visit.

The Joint Security Area (JSA) has long been mentioned as a possible venue for a Trump-Kim meeting. The JSA, also known as the Panmunjom border village, is the only spot along the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers can stand face-to-face.

Though the area would provide a dramatic setting for a high-profile summit, some fear a brief Trump-Kim meeting would be trivial unless accompanied by serious negotiations.

“The DMZ is too consequential a venue to be used simply as backdrop for a photo op,” said Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

“And it is absolutely not the place to praise his ‘friend’ Kim, to complain about ‘freeloading’ allies, or to muse about withdrawing U.S. troops,” Russel added.

Past U.S. presidents have visited the DMZ to deliver messages on strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance, to pay respect to the troops, and to demonstrate a symbolic show of resolve against North Korea.

While Trump’s language may differ from that of past presidents, some analysts welcome a more conciliatory approach.

“While no major agreements will be signed, both sides can reaffirm their commitment to dialogue and diplomacy, essentially resetting the table for a future deal in the weeks and months to come,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Wide gaps

There appear to be wide gaps between North and South Korea on how to proceed with nuclear talks.

Although Trump and Kim agreed in Singapore to work “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” U.S. officials have acknowledged that Washington and Pyongyang do not agree on what “denuclearization” means.

North Korean officials have made clear they do not see “denuclearization” as Pyongyang unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons. Instead, the North wants to see the U.S. take reciprocal steps, including ending U.S. and U.N. sanctions and providing various security guarantees.

In Hanoi, Kim offered to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for the lifting of most U.N. sanctions. Trump rejected that offer, insisting that Kim agree to give up his entire nuclear weapons program before receiving sanctions relief.

Kim has given the U.S. until the end of the year to offer what it sees as an adequate counterproposal.
 

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