Donald Trump will travel to the demilitarised zone dividing the two Koreas on Sunday for a possible impromptu summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“Lots of good things are happening with North Korea”, Trump said on Sunday morning in a meeting South Korean business leaders in Seoul, repeating his belief that the US “would have been at war with North Korea” if someone else had been elected to the White House.
“We have a very good relationship, the two of us”, he added, referring to Kim Jong-un.
“I understand they want to meet,” he said, saying details were still being worked out.
“I want to say hello. Let’s see what happens … It will be very short but that’s OK. A handshake means a lot.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in said the potential meeting represented a “big hope to everyone”. Speaking alongside Trump at the start of their bilateral talks, Moon said even a handshake and brief encounter between Trump and Kim “would be a significant milestone in the peace process on the Korean peninsula”.
Moon added that he could “really feel that the flower of peace was truly blossoming on the Korean peninsula.”
Trump claimed both North and South Korea had benefitted from his attempts to engage Kim since he became president. “North Korea and South Korea are both in much better places than they were two and a half years ago,” he said. “It’s ‘day and night’”, he added.
Trump said at the G20 in Osaka on Saturday that he would have “no problem” stepping into the North with Kim – in what would be a dramatic re-enactment of the extraordinary scene last year when Kim invited the Moon to walk over the military demarcation line that forms the border between the Koreas.
Trump would be the first sitting US president to step across the border, and the gesture would represent a public relations coup for Kim, who has held summits with Trump, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in the past year.
Trump and Kim first met in Singapore last year in a blaze of publicity – the first-ever encounter between a leader of the nuclear-armed North and a sitting US president, whose forces and their allies fought each other to a stalemate in the 1950-53 Korean war.
That summit produced a vaguely-worded pledge about denuclearisation, but a second meeting in Hanoi in February broke up abruptly without agreement.
Contact between the two sides has since been minimal – with Pyongyang issuing frequent criticisms of the US position – but the two leaders have exchanged a series of letters.
It was not clear on Sunday morning if Kim would attend the rendezvous.
But in an unusually fast and public response, within hours of Trump’s tweet the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted the vice foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, as saying the offer was “a very interesting suggestion” but that no official request had been received.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the KCNA comments indicated Kim had “practically accepted” Trump’s invitation.
“If he [Kim] isn’t interested he would not release such a statement to begin with.”
A meeting in the DMZ would make a powerful visual statement, but analysts were divided over its potential impact.
The 4km-wide (2.5 miles) zone, running for 250km, is where the front line lay when the Korean war ended in 1953, with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, and is described as the world’s last Cold War frontier.
“The meeting, however short, will have a huge impact as the DMZ symbolises the military tension between North Korea and the United States,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
However, Robert Kelly of Pusan National University, derided Trump’s invitation as “emblematic of why the Trump NK effort is a farce: thrown-together; last-minute; made-for-TV”.
It was driven by Trump’s “lust for optics and drama rather than substance” and “a photo-op for the 2020 election”, he tweeted.
But John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul said a meeting in the “barren no man’s land that embodies the unhealed wound of post-WWII division, the Korean war, and 70 years of animosity” would help improve ties.
“It’s not just about denuclearisation and it’s not all about a deal – important as those are,” he said. “If Trump and Kim meet & can announce some kind of interim agreement, that’s great. If they meet and don’t, that’s ok too. If in the end they don’t meet, it’s good that Trump offered to.”
On Sunday morning, Trump also hailed the trade talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the G20 in Japan on Saturday as “far better than expected” and vowed to hold off on further tariffs as negotiations continue.
“The quality of the transaction is far more important to me than speed. I am in no hurry, but things look very good!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The ceasefire that halts damaging trade frictions came after a hotly anticipated meeting between the leaders of the world’s top two economies on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
Washington confirmed that it would not impose any further tariffs on Beijing’s exports. On Sunday Trump reiterated that China had agreed to buy “large amounts of agricultural products from our great Farmers.”
“Importantly, we have opened up negotiations again with China as our relationship with them continues to be a very good one,” he tweeted.