SEOUL — North Korean state media was ecstatic on Monday. The “meeting of the century” between Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump at the South Korean border had opened the door to peace and reconciliation after a long history of hostility between the two nations, it declared.
Over three colorful front pages, Rodong Sinmun, the official mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party of Korea, celebrated with images of the two leaders meeting each other at the military demarcation line and sitting down for talks on the South Korean side of the border.
It noted with satisfaction the historic moment — “that a sitting U.S. president crossed the military demarcation line and stepped into our territory for the first time.”
But it dwelt far more on the fact that the leaders of three countries — North and South Korea and the United States — freely crossed a dividing line that had previously represented only hostility and confrontation.
That historic scene at the border village of Panmunjom, it said, “shocked the world.”
“It also showed that a new history of reconciliation and peace has begun at Panmunjom, which has a long history of distrust, misunderstanding, conflict, and antagonism,” it said.
Trump spent much of Sunday complaining that the U.S. media gave him no credit for calming tensions with Pyongyang, but there was no carping from North Korean state media, which celebrated the “bold, huge, and courageous decision” of the two men to meet.
Their determination, it said, created a “marvelous event that has created unprecedented trust” between two quarreling countries suffering deep-rooted hostility.
In the United States, critics pounced on Trump, saying he is legitimizing the leader of a rogue, nuclear-armed state who submits his country to perhaps the most repressive rule on the planet. It is likely, they said, that Trump’s endless descriptions of his “great relationship” with Kim strike despair into the hearts of many people whose loved ones languish in the regime’s prison camps.
But John Delury, an East Asia scholar at Seoul’s Yonsei University, argued that this ignores the fact that the Kim family regime had successfully legitimized its rule domestically for seven decades without U.S. approval — or in fact through perceived American hostility.
Kim’s focus on economic development in the past 18 months already represents a fundamental change, he said.
“Kim is shifting the grounds of his legitimacy in two ways,” he said. “Instead of ‘I will keep you safe,’ he is saying, ‘I will help you prosper.’ That opens up all kinds of possibilities — that North Korea will no longer be a besieged garrison state but move on a more normal trajectory as an East Asian country.”
The complementary shift, Delury said, is away from the idea that the United States is always and everywhere the enemy. A people brought up with endless brainwashing about how Americans are jackals or wolves woke up Monday to images of Kim warmly greeting and chatting with a U.S. president.
Kim has gone from promising to protect his people from the evil American imperialists to pledging to make peace with them, he said.
This is exactly the story that the United States should want the North Korean regime to be telling its people, Delury said: “Americans don’t feel at war with North Korea, so they should be happy if North Koreans are fed a different vision of Americans, one that’s less hostile.”
Trump’s last meeting with Kim, in Hanoi in February, had ended in failure, with a summit brought to an abrupt and early close and lunch canceled.
Kim had left angry, experts say, and his loss of face brought a predictable reaction over the subsequent months, with state media angrily denouncing the United States — although not Trump himself — and the regime testing short-range ballistic missiles.
Sunday’s meeting at the border allowed Kim, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to all walk away declaring victory and the United States and North Korea promising to get down to working-level talks within weeks.
Still, many people were unhappy. Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016, focused on the fact that Trump had crossed first into North Korean territory before Kim accompanied him back for talks on the southern side of the border.
In Asian culture, it is the junior partner in a relationship who must visit the house of the senior person. Just as Kim visited China four times before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang, so Trump crossing first into the North conferred status on Kim as his equal or better, he argued.
“It was really a great victory to North Korea,” he said, “really a historic event in their struggle against the Americans.”
Thae compared Trump’s brief crossing onto North Korean soil to President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, conferring international legitimacy on Kim’s regime just as Nixon had conferred legitimacy on Mao Zedong’s, despite the fact that it had killed tens of millions of its own people.
Kim, he said, had held more than a dozen summits with major leaders since declaring North Korea a nuclear state in November 2017 and had become a global “media star.”
“This proves to North Korea how strong and how valuable their nuclear weapons are,” he said. “Because of these nuclear weapons, North Korea, the smallest country in this region, the poorest country in this region, can become a kind of major player in this region.”
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.