By Roberta Rampton and Joyce Lee
PANMUNJOM, South Korea (Reuters) – U. S. President Donald Trump took a historic step into North Korea on Sunday, drawing on his penchant for showmanship and surprise to pull off talks with Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.
The drama was magnified by the choice of the Panmunjom truce village as the venue for his meeting with Kim, where 66 years ago Americans and North Koreans huddled to draw up the Military Demarcation Line following the bitter 1950-53 war.
“Stepping across that line has been a great honour,” Trump said as he sat down with Kim, amid a chaotic scene of U.S. and North Korean reporters jostling to capture the historic moment while secret service agents struggled to contain them.
Earlier in the day, Trump held a meeting and lunched with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the ornate presidential Blue House in Seoul. Then, the two confirmed the meeting with Kim was indeed going to happen.
“President Trump gave big hope to the world through his tweet yesterday,” Moon said. “Seeing that tweet, I felt like flowers of hope were blossoming on the Korean peninsula.”
Trump tweeted the invitation only on Saturday to Kim to join him as he toured the DMZ, a meeting he had said would probably last only for a couple of minutes for a symbolic handshake across the line.
The spur-of-the-moment idea apparently caught Kim by surprise, but he was quick to reciprocate.
Trump stepped briefly across the concrete barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula before bringing Kim into Freedom House on the southern side for an hour-long meeting.
They agreed to direct officials to set up teams who will tackle the challenge of overcoming fundamental differences in positions that led to the collapse of their second summit in February in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.
Trump, who starred in a popular reality television show before he ran for office, kept saying he was not sure whether the meeting would come together, giving reporters travelling with him regular updates while noting logistics and security were difficult.
After Trump came to the DMZ, he got his first look at North Korea from the vantage point of Observation Post Ouellette as flags of the United States, South Korea and the United Nations flapped in the brisk wind.
Then, he walked slowly from the Freedom House on the South Korean side of the border village to meet the North Korean leader who approached the concrete block that serves as the military demarcation line from the other side.
“I never expected to meet you at his place,” Kim said. The leaders shook hands and Kim laughed out loud.
“Would you like me to come across the line?” Trump recalled asking Kim as they conversed across the line. “He said ‘I would be honoured.’”
The chaotic scene of reporters and secret service bumping into each other highlighted how little planning had gone into the hastily arranged encounter.
But the two leaders were oblivious to the confusion as they exchanged invitations to visit each others’ capitals.
“I would invite him right now, to the White House,” Trump said. Kim told Trump he would be welcomed in Pyongyang.
Critics have questioned whether Trump has made any substantive gains from his friendships and worry that his eagerness to talk to strongmen results in legitimising them.
Chief among his unusual friendships is Kim, who Trump once threatened with “fire and fury” – but now exchanges “beautiful letters” with on a regular basis.
Even as Trump savoured the meeting, he could not hide his resentment for the media and the foreign policy establishment who he believes have not given him enough credit for working towards curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump hit back at the critics saying that tensions had eased for everyday Koreans and Japanese and that it was “insulting” to suggest progress has not been made.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)