President Trump became the first sitting American commander in chief to set foot in North Korea on Sunday as he greeted Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone and the two agreed to send their negotiators back to the table to seek a long-elusive nuclear agreement.
Met in the middle by a beaming Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump stepped across a low concrete marker at 3:46 p.m. local time and walked 20 steps to the base of a building on the North Korean side for an encounter carried live on international television — an unprecedented, camera-friendly demonstration of friendship intended to revitalize stalled talks.
“It is good to see you again,” a seemingly exuberant Mr. Kim told the president through an interpreter. “I never expected to meet you in this place.”
“Big moment, big moment,” Mr. Trump told him.
After about a minute on officially hostile territory, Mr. Trump escorted Mr. Kim back over the line into South Korea, where the two briefly addressed a scrum of journalists before slipping inside the building known as Freedom House for a private conversation. Mr. Trump said he would invite Mr. Kim to visit him at the White House.
“This has a lot of significance because it means that we want to bring an end to the unpleasant past and try to create a new future, so it’s a very courageous and determined act,” Mr. Kim told reporters.
“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” Mr. Trump replied. “A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made and this has been in particular a great friendship.”
A showman by nature and past profession, Mr. Trump delighted in the drama of the moment. Never before had American and North Korean leaders gotten together at the line bristling with concertina wire and weapons, where heavily armed forces have faced off across a tense divide for 66 years since the end of fighting in the Korean War.
The encounter in Panmunjom was cast as a brief greeting, not a formal negotiation, but the two ended up together for a little more than an hour. After emerging, Mr. Trump said he and Mr. Kim had agreed to designate negotiators to resume conversations in the next few weeks. The American team will continue to be headed by Stephen Biegun, the special envoy, but it remained unclear who would be on the North Korean side of the table.
Mr. Trump gambled that the show of amity could crack the logjam, underscoring his faith in the power of his own personal diplomacy to achieve what has eluded presidents in the past. More than halfway through his term, Mr. Trump is eager for a resolution to the longstanding nuclear dispute, seeing it as a signature element of the legacy he hopes to forge.
Mr. Kim accepted Mr. Trump’s unorthodox invitation, posted on Twitter just a day earlier, and both sides scrambled over the past 24 hours to manage the logistics and security required for such a get-together. Mr. Trump was already scheduled to make an unannounced visit to the DMZ during his trip to South Korea, and while he portrayed the idea of meeting with Mr. Kim while there as a spontaneous one, he had actually been musing out loud about it for days in advance.
“There are 35 million people in Seoul, 25 miles away,” Mr. Trump said before Mr. Kim’s arrival, gazing into the distance as he was shown the line from the observation deck. “All accessible by what they already have in the mountains,” he added, an apparent reference to the massive North Korean artillery firepower built up within range of Seoul over several decades. “There’s nothing like that anywhere in terms of danger.”
Panmunjom, which straddles the North-South border, is commonly known as the “truce village” because the American-led United Nations forces signed an armistice with North Korea and its Chinese backers in 1953 to halt the three-year Korean War.
Even in this symbolic moment of reconciliation, Mr. Trump seemed to dwell on his grievances about his media coverage, repeating complaints he has made several times over the last day that he has not received enough credit for de-escalating tensions on the peninsula.
“There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore,” he said, referring to his first encounter with Mr. Kim a year ago. “Tremendous conflict and death all around them. And it’s now been extremely peaceful. It’s been a whole different world.”
“That wouldn’t necessarily have been reported, but they understand it very well,” he said, referring to the news media. “I keep saying that for the people who say nothing has been accomplished. So much has been accomplished.”
In the year since that first meeting, North Korea has suspended nuclear tests, released detained Americans and sent back to the United States the remains of some American soldiers killed in the war. But it has not agreed to a plan to give up its nuclear arsenal, as Mr. Trump has demanded, and in May it launched short-range missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions.
Critics said the greeting at the DMZ was nothing more than a glorified photo opportunity by a president who himself ratcheted up the conflict with North Korea in his first year in office by making “fire and fury” threats to destroy the small Asian country if it threatened American security.
“At this point I’m not sure what it is that President Trump is trying to accomplish, because while all this engagement has gone on, there has been no decline in the stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons or missiles; in fact they have increased them,” Joseph Yun, who was the United States special representative for North Korea policy under President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump, said on CNN. “Yes, it’s true that tensions are down, but remember that tensions were built up because of all the fire and fury in 2017.”
On the other hand, Sue Mi Terry, who served as a National Security Council aide specializing in Korean affairs under both President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama, said it could yield progress if Mr. Trump proves willing to accept a partial accord short of a comprehensive agreement.
“This meeting could lead to a more substantive meeting down the road, later in the year,” she said in an interview. “I do think Kim could offer just enough on the negotiating table such as the Yongbyun nuclear facility plus yet another suspected nuclear facility in order to secure an interim deal with Trump and at least some sanctions relief.”
Mr. Kim crossed the DMZ in April 2018 to meet with Mr. Moon, becoming the first North Korean leader to step over the line since fighting between the countries ended in 1953. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton each visited North Korea, flying into its capital, Pyongyang, but only after they left office. Sitting presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, visited the DMZ, but were never greeted by North Korea’s leader.
Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Kim in Singapore in June 2018 was the first time sitting American and North Korean leaders had met anywhere since the war, and it produced vague promises to pursue an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Their second summit meeting, in Hanoi, ended in failure in February when the two leaders could not agree on a concrete way to accomplish that goal.
North Korean officials went dark after the collapse of the talks, refusing to respond to either the Americans or the South Koreans amid conflicting reports about the fate of the negotiators blamed by Mr. Kim for the failure. North Korea’s missile test was seen as a reflection of Mr. Kim’s frustration over the stalled negotiations.
In recent weeks, however, the North Korean government has re-emerged on the world stage as Mr. Kim exchanged letters with Mr. Trump and met separately with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China in what was seen as a signal of its interest in resuming diplomacy.
American officials have said they did not think a third meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim should be arranged unless a substantive agreement could be negotiated beforehand to avoid another setback. But Mr. Trump said that since he was already planning to visit the DMZ during his trip to South Korea this weekend, he decided it was worth seeing if Mr. Kim would agree to a short greeting.
“It’s just a step,” Mr. Trump said earlier Sunday. “It might be an important step or it might not.” He added: “There’s a good feeling, so it could be very good. As far as another meeting, let’s see what happens today before we start thinking about that.”
Mr. Moon, who has staked his presidency on improving relations with the North, showered Mr. Trump with praise for reaching out, declaring that “the flower of peace is truly blossoming” and describing himself as “very overwhelmed with emotion” about the development.
“President Trump is the maker of peace on the Korean Peninsula, you really are the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said. “I hope that this meeting with Chairman Kim at Panmunjom will bring hope to the people of South and North Korea and it will be a milestone in the history of humankind toward peace.”