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Trump Makes History by Walking into North Korea. Could This Help to Finally End the Korean War?

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Image Credit: Handout photo by Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images

President Trump made history Sunday when he became the first sitting U.S. president to step foot in North Korea. Trump was there to visit North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the military demarcation line at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Kim then invited Trump to cross the line, which has divided North and South Korea since 1953. Trump then took about 20 steps into North Korea. Following the meeting at the DMZ, Trump and Kim held a three-way gathering with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Sunday marked Trump and Kim’s first meeting since nuclear talks broke down in February. More nuclear talks are reportedly scheduled to begin in the coming weeks. We speak with Suzy Kim, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, and Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump made history this weekend when he became the first sitting U.S. president to step foot in North Korea. Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the military demarcation line at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Kim then invited Trump to cross the line, which has divided North and South Korea since 1953. Trump then took about 20 steps into North Korea. The surprise meeting came 24 hours after Trump tweeted to Kim Jong-un, offering to meet him at the DMZ after the G20 summit wrapped up in Japan. After meeting at the Demilitarized Zone, Trump and Kim then held a three-way meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump and Kim appeared together at a news conference.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s just an honor to be with you. And it was an honor that you asked me to step over that line. And I was proud to step over the line. I thought you might do that; I wasn’t sure. But I was ready to do it. And I want to thank you. It’s been great. It’s been great. A very historic meeting. We were just saying—one of the folks from the media was saying this could to be a very historic moment, and I guess that’s what it is. But I enjoyed being with you, and thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also addressed reporters.

KIM JONG-UN: [translated] In fact, I was surprised to see your message that you wanted to meet me in the morning. And then I found that there’s been an official offer for today’s meeting in the late afternoon. … Our great relationship will continue to create good events that others can’t expect. I am confident that it will be mystical powers to lead us to overcome all obstacles.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we’ll go to Seoul, South Korea, as well as Hawaii, to get response to this historic meeting. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Music by the South Korean violinist and peace activist Hyung Joon Won. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

President Trump made history Sunday when he became the first sitting U.S. president to step foot in North Korea. Sunday marked Trump and Kim Jong-un’s first meeting since nuclear talks broke down in February at a Vietnam summit when President Trump walked out. It appears another round of nuclear talks could begin in the coming weeks. The New York Times reports the Trump administration is now considering settling for a nuclear freeze in North Korea, after years of demanding full denuclearization.

To talk more about Sunday’s historic meeting and what it means, we’re joined by two guests. From Seoul, South Korea, Suzy Kim is with us, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, the author of Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. And in Honolulu, Hawaii, Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.

Professor Suzy Kim in Seoul, you’re there in the Koreas when this Sunday moment took place. What was the significance of Donald Trump becoming the first sitting president to step foot in North Korea as he walked with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un?

SUZY KIM: I feel very fortunate to have been here to be able to witness that on the Korean Peninsula. I think the significance is telling in terms of how the South Korean public responded. I was able to walk around the city center yesterday as this was unfolding. And an interesting kind of convergence happened between both the—sort of the left and the right, where traditionally they’re polarized, just like in the United States, but both sides, in many respects, welcomed President Trump and welcomed this opportunity for him to make history by stepping foot in North Korean soil.

I think the significance lies in the fact that, on the one hand, it’s this border that seemed very impenetrable, but President Trump was able to show his willingness to be able to step across that border, to be able to make a commitment to continue to work toward a peace process on the Korean Peninsula, which was reciprocated by Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea. And as significant as that was, what I thought was also quite telling was just how absurd that border really is, just by the sheer kind of ease with which the president and the chairman were able to cross it when there was the political will to do so. And so, I think, in many respects, while there may be some cynicism coming out from U.S. sources, I think the public and Korea, their welcoming of President Trump, despite all of his faults, I think, is quite telling in terms of the urgency and the need that they feel to continue this peace process forward in Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Christine Ahn, who founded Women Cross DMZ, you have crossed that very line. Here you are now in Honolulu. You are Korean yourself. Can you respond to what quickly unfolded this weekend? Did it surprise you? And what do you think of what happened and where it will lead?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, we very much—Suzy Kim was also on that journey in 2015, with 30 women, peacemakers, including Gloria Steinem and Nobel Peace laureates. And that’s where we did want to cross, but we ended up crossing in Kaesong, which is actually quite symbolic because that was really the development of really committed work by the two Korean leaders at that time, during the era of the “sunshine” policy, to begin the process of integration. And so, to see right now Trump cross that border, as Suzy said, was, I think, a long-held wish and desire for the Korean people, not just the people in North and South Korea, but obviously Koreans all around the world, who have so longed for an end to the Korean War.

My friend Hye-jung Park happened to also note yesterday that it was also the 30th anniversary of Im Su-kyong, who was the South Korean university student who went to North Korea at the same day 30 years ago, and she became the first civilian woman to cross the DMZ, on her return back to South Korea, and was arrested, of course, and imprisoned for five years because of violating the national security law. But, you know, I think what’s so significant is that women have really led the way in crossing that DMZ and really showing the kind of absurdity of this man-made militarized border, and really the power of what people and social movements can do when, in the case of now, can overthrow a neoconservative leader, Park Geun-hye, a corrupt leader who now sits in prison, and can usher in a leader like Moon Jae-in, who has been the key interlocutor between the U.S. and North Korea in steadily pushing for a peace process towards the ending of the Korean War.

And clearly, while the David Sanger piece shows that maybe what the Trump administration settled for was accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear power, it’s a sign that there is really no choice at this point but to pursue a pragmatic approach to diplomacy, that it will have to be a step-by-step approach. We can’t expect North Korea to unilaterally disarm at the front end of a process without assuring security guarantees. And so, I think it was, overall, a great day for Koreans on the peninsula and for Americans here at home.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to some of the Democratic presidential candidates weighing in on Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un on Sunday. Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson tweeted a statement saying, “President Trump’s coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests is one of the most dangerous ways he’s diminishing us on the world stage and subverting our values as a nation. This past week he yet again fawned over Kim Jong-un—to whom he’s made numerous concessions for negligible gain.” That was Biden.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Our President shouldn’t be squandering American influence on photo ops and exchanging love letters with a ruthless dictator. Instead, we should be dealing with North Korea through principled diplomacy that promotes US security, defends our allies, and upholds human rights.” Again, that was Senator Warren.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders addressed the visit on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: The concern here is his incredible inconsistencies. I have no problem with him sitting down with Kim Jong-un in North Korea or anyplace else, but I don’t want it simply to be a photo opportunity. The whole world’s media was attracted there. What’s going to happen tomorrow and the next day? He has weakened the State Department. If we’re going to bring peace to this world, we need a strong State Department. We need to move forward diplomatically, not just do photo opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Bernie Sanders. Suzy Kim, since you are right now in Seoul, South Korea, you’re not probably hearing a lot of the responses in the United States. Of course, the opposition party to President Trump, extremely critical, sounds like a war party. But can you respond to what they are each saying about cozying up to a dictator?

SUZY KIM: Yes, absolutely. So, in the previous—my previous answer to the question, I had mentioned that there’s been an interesting coalition happening between some of the right and the left political wings in South Korea, for example, in welcoming Trump in his efforts for engagement with North Korea. On the other side, there’s been also, I think, an interesting convergence happening in the U.S. between both the conservatives, the traditional conservatives, and the Democrats, or the liberals, in terms of criticizing Trump for either his unpredictability or for the fact that he’s, quote, “cozying up” to the so-called dictatorships around the world.

But as I tried to write about this last year when the first summit between Trump and Kim happened, I think what this signals, actually, is the fact that the American political leadership is quite unaware of the kind of opportunity that this presents for the Korean people. In other words, just simply evaluating Trump as a political calculation is undermining what potential opening Trump could be opening up for the Korean people. That is to say, Trump may have his own interests or calculations for why he is pursuing this kind of tactic with North Korea, in particular, in this case—it might be for self-aggrandizement, for example, or photo ops, as many of the quotes that you presented just now—but regardless of what his individual interests might be, I think it presents a particular opportunity in this moment where we can actually carry out a concrete peace process.

And in that sense, what Senator Bernie Sanders mentioned about the importance of the work ahead, after this kind of symbolic opening, is really important. And on that note, I think it’s important to note and mention that President Trump specifically targeted and asked Stephen Biegun to basically rally the State Department and his staff to pursue detailed negotiations with the North Korean counterparts in order to make the steps, set the foundation for the peace process ahead. And so I think it’s important to see this for what it is, which is that it is a symbolic opening, and there is a lot of work ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: We said “denuclearization talks,” but the word “denuclearization” was not used. Christine Ahn, The New York Times reporting the Trump administration now considering settling for a nuclear freeze in North Korea, after years of demanding full denuclearization, what exactly does that mean?

CHRISTINE AHN: I think it just means that you need to strike an interim deal, where you freeze North Korea’s nuclear arsenal so that they—I mean, it’s basically what came out of Hanoi, which was, North Korea offered to dismantle Yongbyon and also put a moratorium on their nuclear and long-range missile tests, and the Trump administration wanted basically the Libya model. And so, that wasn’t going to work for North Korea. And the United States, they also—the North Koreans were demanding a partial lifting of the sanctions. So both sides left.

And what happened was, in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gave a big speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly, and he basically set a timetable. He said the U.S. needs to shift its position, basically, and come back to the table with a different stance; otherwise, you know, we can all conjecture what that means, possibly a return back to the fire and fury, which obviously, for Trump, won’t be good for his 2020 bid for president, because he has been basically saying that, “Well, we have succeeded in a freeze for freeze. Korea has not been testing long-range missiles or nuclear weapons. So, that is a good thing.” And, you know, to be honest, I would agree with Trump in that stance.

But I think that, you know, what brought the Trump administration to this moment, besides Kim setting the timetable, one, the Libya model just does not work. And it has not succeeded, obviously, in forcing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. They have really run the line—end of the line on maximum pressure. You know, forcing North Korea’s denuclearization through sanctions really depends on China. And the U.S. is now in a trade war with China. And Xi Jinping’s visit to China—to North Korea for the first time, 10 days ago, was clearly a sign that China holds the keys in terms of whether maximum pressure will succeed or not. And clearly, with the mutual defense treaty between China and North Korea, that is not likely to happen. China will ensure the security guarantee of North Korea.

But also, we’re seeing a massive humanitarian disaster. You know, the World Food Programme and FAO just came out with a major report: 10 million North Koreans are food-insecure. Forty percent of the population are in dire need of food aid. The sanctions are impacting long-term humanitarian aid operations from conducting its daily operations in North Korea. Medicine is not getting into North Korea because of these sanctions. So, it is a PR disaster for the Trump administration. And so, they basically, you know, have come out of—they’ve run out of options.

And, you know, this is the most pragmatic approach. Stephen Biegun, who Women Cross DMZ has met with, seems to me very—he’s a seasoned diplomat. And I think that it’s a good day that he is now charged with leading the working-level negotiations with North Korea. His speech at Stanford before the Hanoi summit, which many of us thought was the trajectory that the Trump administration was on, seemed very pragmatic, which seemed very—like, basically, dealing with North Korea as they are, not as we wish them to be.

And so, I mean, back to the point about the presidential candidates, I think Sanders obviously chose the most strategic line. Denuclearization talks with North Korea is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a long-term process. Sieg Hecker from Stanford, the nuclear scientist, says it will take 20 years for North Korea to completely denuclearize. It’s going to be a long-term process. The Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot when they say that they take the moral high ground, that they shouldn’t engage North Korea or the evil regime in North Korea, because if they are president, you know, it’s going to come back to bite them. And frankly, we should attack Trump not from the right, but from the left, and, you know, calling for a consistent, reliable diplomacy, but also calling for a new approach that doesn’t rely on the same failed model of maximum pressure or its predecessor, strategic patience.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolton, the national security adviser, who was not at Trump’s side, was not there in Korea, just tweeted, “I read this [New York Times] story with curiosity. Neither the NSC“—that’s the National Security Council—”staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to 'settle for a nuclear freeze by [North Korea].'” Suzy Kim, if you could respond? And also, before we end, talk about Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, and what this means for him. In South Korea, opposition is very strong, yet he has made this the linchpin of his administration and his goals, bringing together Trump and Kim. The significance of this meeting for him, domestically and internationally?

SUZY KIM: Well, if I could start with the second question, I guess, first, so, President Moon Jae-in, as you mentioned, there’s been opposition, largely because there’s been some debate about what is the best approach with North Korea, I think, in some ways, very similar to the kind of debates we’ve seen in the United States. And so, for him, I think it’s imperative, as it is for President Trump, and perhaps even for Chairman Kim, to be able to deliver on some of the promises that they’ve made. President Moon has basically said that a peace process on the Korean Peninsula would be a win-win situation, where it could open up all kinds of economic opportunities for both Koreas. And I think President Trump has also said similar things in terms of promising North Korea relief from sanctions, that that could also end up leading to major economic opportunities for North Korea.

And, of course, from the North Korean side, that kind of economic opportunity and relief from sanctions is absolutely urgent. As Christine mentioned, there’s major devastating effects on the regular North Korean population as a result of the sanctions. And I think the latest that’s coming out from humanitarian organizations, like the World Food Programme or the Red Cross, is that there’s, again, major weather issues that North Korea is having to deal with, that is affecting their total agricultural produce.

And so, all of this is absolutely important for all political leaders, I think, to be able to make headway. Even if it’s merely for the survival of their own political careers, it’s absolutely important that they see some progress on this, which explains a little bit about why there’s been that much effort.

Going back to your other question about Bolton, could you remind again what your question was? I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I asked about Bolton saying he knows nothing about denuclearization. But we have to go to break. We’re going to save that. We have to—he knows nothing about a nuclear freeze. But we’re going to move on to that in the coming days. I want to thank Suzy Kim, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, and Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross DMZ. Suzy Kim joining us from Seoul, Christine Ahn from Honolulu.

When we come back, 4 million people flood the streets of New York City in the largest LGBTQ WorldPride celebration in history. Stay with us.

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