Donald Trump has become the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea, in what is perhaps the most extreme headline-grabbing photo op of his reality television presidency.
Trump met North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Sunday at the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula, in what appeared to be an impromptu meeting between the two unlikely partners that turned into a 53-minute discussion culminating in promises of renewed talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The Associated Press described the encounter as a “made-for television moment,” marked by “wide grins and a historic handshake.”
Trump took 18 steps into North Korea, and then the two men returned to South Korea’s Freedom House for a lengthy discussion. Trump said he was “proud to step over the line,” and that “stepping across that line was a great honor.”
There’s little need to point out that North Korea is essentially a giant prison camp of a country.
Joining the group at Freedom House were the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Both of them also entered North Korea. Ivanka Trump called the experience “surreal,” according to the AP’s Jonathan Lemire.
Kim offered his own flowery language in return, calling the exchange “a historic moment” and “a very courageous and determined act,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Prior to meeting Kim, Trump looked across the DMZ from a military observation post, telling reporters that they “have no appreciation for what is being done, none.” He then added, falsely, that since his first meeting with Kim, “all of the danger went away.”
Trump praised Kim for having a “powerful voice” that had “never been heard before,” and admitted that he had invited Kim to visit the White House. “At some point, it will all happen,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post’s David Nakamura.
Prior to the meeting, Dennis Rodman had sent the two leaders “much love” on Twitter and wished them luck.
Surreal, indeed. As Nakamura later wrote, the encounter was “One small step for the 45th president; one giant boost for his television ratings.”
Later, Trump tweeted that he had a “wonderful meeting” with Kim, and that it had been a “great honor.”
Per the Post’s Nakamura:
Critics often accuse the media-obsessed president of trying to conduct complex diplomacy on Twitter, the place where “Little Rocket Man” and “fire and fury” were born during the early days of Trump’s tenure when he and Kim were chest-beating in a barrage of threats and insults.
Yet Trump has also carefully cultivated elaborately staged moments that, strung together, reveal a president eager to play the roles of producer and director, calling the camera shots, hyping the drama, and building public expectations for a big reveal.
Also worth noting is that Trump invited Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who reportedly convinced Trump not to go to war with Iran, along for the trip, while Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, was nowhere to be seen.
As The Guardian reported (emphasis mine):
The DMZ meeting was all about shaping a narrative. That is why John Bolton, the ultra-hawkish national security adviser, was nowhere to be seen; he had been sent, or sent himself, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But the official US party included Tucker Carlson, a Fox News talkshow host, who is Trump’s principal channel to the non-interventionist section of his far-right base. Eleventh-hour conversations with Carlson reportedly persuaded Trump not to launch missiles against Iran this month, after the downing of a US drone.
Another important reaction to all of this came from President Barack Obama’s former deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, who led secret negotiations with Cuba to normalize relations with that country during the Obama administration.
“Foreign policy isn’t reality television,” Rhodes tweeted, “it’s reality.”