Despite Trump’s claims about North Korea, the danger has not passed
At one of the most militarised borders on Earth, it was undoubtedly an historic handshake.
The world watched as a North Korean leader offered a US president an extraordinary invitation to cross the border.
Donald Trump didn’t hesitate – not just stepping, but positively striding into the history books as the first sitting American president to meet a leader in the North since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
In terms of optics, this was a triumph for both leaders.
The lengthy handshake in North Korea was political capital for Chairman Kim, ensuring both men had a win to show their people as they boldly recrossed the border.
“It is a great day for the world,” Kim Jong Un declared. “I believe that just looking at this action is an expression of his [Donald Trump’s] willingness to eliminate all the unfortunate past and open a new future.”
The US president was also full of flattery – after a year of negotiations, it seems the unpredictable pair have learned what makes the other tick.
Mr Trump enthused: “I just want to say that this is my honour. I didn’t really expect it, we were in Japan for the G20 we came over and I said ‘hey I’m over I want to talk to Chairman Kim’.
“And we got to meet and stepping across that line was a great honour, a lot of progress has been made. A lot of friendships have been made and this, in particular, a great friendship. I just want to thank you, that was very quick notice and I want to thank you.”
And quick notice it was – a spur of a moment invitation offered by tweet and responded to in record time by Pyongyang.
If nothing more, Mr Kim’s decision not to stand up Mr Trump shows he believes there is still something to gain from diplomacy, and the president thanked him for the courtesy.
“If he didn’t show up, the press was going to make me look very bad. So you made us both look good and I appreciate it,” the president half-joked.
After February’s failed Hanoi summit and stalling relations, today’s meeting was no doubt also a relief for the watching South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, the long-suffering political matchmaker in this union.
What was billed as being a quick handshake extended to about 50 minutes, ending with an impromptu news conference where Donald Trump boasted about the progress made.
He said: “We’ve developed a great relationship. I really think that if you go back two-and-a-half years and you look at what was going on, prior to my becoming president, it was a very, very bad situation, a very dangerous situation for South Korea, for North Korea, for the world.”
On one hand, he’s right – the current diplomatic approach to the problem is a huge step forward from the “fire and fury” insults of 2017 when many analysts feared the region could be on the brink of war.
But despite Mr Trump’s claims, the danger hasn’t passed.
The cold facts are North Korea hasn’t denuclearised, sanctions continue to bite and recent short-range missile tests prove Pyongyang is still building its arsenal.
Once again, shouted questions from journalists about human rights abuses by the regime went ignored.
The president knows all this but success in North Korea matters to him personally and politically, and heading towards an election Donald Trump can’t afford a repeat of Hanoi, so today the notoriously impatient leader was taking it slow.
Responding to reporters after the meeting he said: “We’ve agreed that we’re each going to designate a team. And the team will try and work out some details and again, speed is not the object.
“We want to see if we can do a really comprehensive, good deal. Nobody knows how things turn out. But certainly, this was a great day.”
This afternoon, as Mr Kim returned home with an invitation to the US and an agreement to restart talks, even the hardest of critics must agree this was more than just a PR stunt.
After the stalemate of the last few months, this could be the best opportunity to get diplomacy back on track.
However, without an agreed understanding of how North Korea will denuclearise, then the failures of Hanoi will be repeated again – and with elections due in the US and South Korea, the current political line-up isn’t guaranteed forever.
Unless concrete, meaningful progress is made on getting Pyongyang to give up with nuclear weapons then in the future today’s photos may turn out to be just another set of pretty political pictures.
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