Trump’s brief and historic stroll into North Korea is reality TV diplomacy

Kim and Trump at the DMZ makes for great TV.
Kim and Trump at the DMZ makes for great TV.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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On Sunday, US president Donald Trump took 20 steps into North Korea, accompanied by the nation’s dictator Kim Jong Un. It was an historic moment, as no sitting US president had ever been in North Korea before. However, it was also additional evidence that Trump is the consummate reality TV star, more entertainer than diplomat, an orchestrator of seemingly spontaneous moments that make for a great show but are likely scripted and offer little in the way of substance.

The meeting allegedly arose as a result of a Trump tweet on June 28, while he was in Japan at the G20 conference. He suggested meeting Kim in the demilitarized zone at the border between the two Koreas “just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”

Indeed, Kim was into the meet and greet. The two leaders met, shook hands, walked briefly into North Korea, then joined South Korean leader Moon Jae-in. Trump and Kim then spent about an hour in bilateral talks at the Inter-Korean House of Freedom on the southern side of the border.

“Our great relationship will provide the magical power with which to overcome hardships and obstacles in the tasks that needs to be done from now on,” Kim said before the discussions. His emphasis on personal relations is perfectly aligned with Trump’s approach.

The president also highlighted his friendship with the Korean dictator. Ahead of the meeting, Trump told reporters about Kim, “We’ve developed a very good relationship and we understand each other very well. I do believe he understands me, and I think I maybe understand him, and sometimes that can lead to very good things.”

But experts are highly skeptical of the claim that the meeting really was spontaneous or that it will yield “good things,” specifically North Korean denuclearization. All that came of the meeting, besides the historic photos, was a plan to resume talks, which were stalled after the last Trump-Kim summit four months ago.

On Twitter, Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, called the meeting a “farce” and a “perfect, reality TV Trumpian stunt.” He noted that the gathering dominated South Korean television and provided great press coverage for the leaders involved but offered no promises that North Korea would denuclearize. The leaders agreed only to keep meeting in the hopes their “magical” relationship will magically yield a deal…or not.

By meeting with Kim in this way, then, Trump arguably didn’t make any significant gains. However, he did legitimize a dictatorship long considered one of world’s worst human rights abusers. According to Jean Lee, director of the Wilson Center’s public policy think tank on Korea in Washington, DC, bolstering the dictator was unwise.

For Trump, the meeting was a victory. He called it “an important statement for all, and a great honor” to stand on North Korean soil. And it certainly was an important statement insofar as it reminded Americans and the world—if it’s possible to forget—that the president is first and foremost a showman.