A Tale of Two Visits to the DMZ

 

Consider two images of two United States presidents at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea. The two images convey very different messages, very different possibilities. Which do you prefer?

The first image is of President Obama peering through military binoculars into North Korea. He is shielded behind bulletproof glass and a sandbagged observation post. South Korean (ROK) and American soldiers flank him. This image reflects the state of US-Korean policy for the past half-century.

The second image has more in it, and not in it, than a casual observer would see. The concrete curb, over which President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un are stepping, marks the dividing line between the two Koreas, defined in the armistice a half-century ago. The blue buildings are half on the north and half on the south. The southern half is controlled by the United Nations Command, while the northern is controlled by North Korean forces. For half a century, guard forces have faced off in ritualized vigilance.

With that context, consider what happened on the last weekend of June 2019. Notice that there are no military uniforms in sight. The two nation’s elite protective services, guarding the President of the United States and the hereditary leader of North Korea, took over the space for the hours needed to ensure their principals would be secure. The uniforms were dark suits instead of business-equivalent uniforms. The focus was protection rather than confrontation. This was a masterful employment of information as a tool of national policy, an informally choreographed act of public diplomacy.

President Trump set this moment in motion by Twitter, his go-to channel for information operations on multiple levels. It reminded me of an informal mentorship moment I had with a commanding general some years ago. This general would send out an e-mail calendar invitation to his staff when he was flying into his headquarters. Everyone in this lean staff was invited to join him for a morning “run, walk, or skate.” He always ran at a pace anyone in reasonable shape could match, and staff members would slide up alongside, exchange a few words, then fall back or move forward along the route. What was this accomplishing?

“I use these runs like other generals use golf,” my commander taught me. “When you are out playing golf, people talk. If the boss likes an idea, you get approval or an invitation to present it at the office. If not, you are just playing golf, so no one loses status.”

A tweet cuts out all the formal diplomatic structures and all the reputations at risk along the way. Because it is just a tweet, and not formal policy, there is no requirement to respond. If Kim had decided he just wasn’t going to be available, it would be a missed opportunity but not a failed formal initiative.

Kim accepted and the two nation’s security and diplomatic teams scrabbled to catch up with their principals’ intent. The militaries stepped back, and the personal protective forces stepped in, establishing coordinated security for the hours around the two leaders’ visit. The North Korean security team was sufficiently disciplined and professional to block the western press mob while recognizing the authority of President Trump’s new press secretary. Between the braying press pack and the large young men in dark suits, Stephanie Grisham got a bit bruised, but created the space for a couple of western reporters to get through and take the photographs to tell the story.

Grisham’s first days on the new job bode well, as she displayed toughness and poise under pressure. That is her setting the pick to roll a couple of reporters by the much bigger North Korean security man. Understand, everyone in the frame is doing their job. No one is being undisciplined on either government’s side. The big young man is doing his job, as instructed, and so is the tough lady who has her act together, focused on her boss’s need and intent in this moment.


Credit to Mike Gallagher for verbally painting the pictures at the top on his show. I went looking for the best images of each event and pulled them together into the top graphic and this story.

Published in Foreign Policy
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There are 70 comments.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor

    An excellent contrast of photos at the beginning, Clifford! Those speak volumes not only for the differences between the two administrations, but the how Trump will be remembered for his unconventional and courageous acts. Bravo! (I also liked your personal example!)

    • #1
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:42 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  2. Western Chauvinist Member

    This is how the leader of a free nation acts. Obama? Not so much.

    • #2
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:42 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  3. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    I have a cousin who graduated from West Point in the late ’70s. His first deployment was to the DMZ. He wanted the hazardous assignment. Maybe times have changed. I sure hope so.

    • #3
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:43 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. Judge Mental Member

    “”Yo Kim, I’m gonna be at the DMZ. Why don’t you show? We can hang.”

    • #4
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:44 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  5. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    This is how the leader of a free nation acts. Obama? Not so much.

    In fairness, you will find similar photographs of previous presidents of both parties. That is what makes this past weekend so different.

    Reagan

    Clinton

    Bush43

    • #5
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:49 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. Valiuth Member

    What I see is Donald Trump being his usual stupid self. I thought it was a mistake to meet with Kim the first time and the value of these meetings has not increased since then. We have gained nothing from this process so far, other than further North Korean lies. Frankly I don’t see any difference in this between Obama’s Iran strategy and Trumps current North Korean strategy. I think in the end he will trade meaningful relief for a temporary and unenforceable freeze in nuclear development. 

    • #6
    • July 1, 2019, at 12:52 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    What I see is Donald Trump being his usual stupid self. I thought it was a mistake to meet with Kim the first time and the value of these meetings has not increased since then. We have gained nothing from this process so far, other than further North Korean lies. Frankly I don’t see any difference in this between Obama’s Iran strategy and Trumps current North Korean strategy. I think in the end he will trade meaningful relief for a temporary and unenforceable freeze in nuclear development.

    Naturally.

    • #7
    • July 1, 2019, at 1:15 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  8. Franco Member

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    What I see is Donald Trump being his usual stupid self. I thought it was a mistake to meet with Kim the first time and the value of these meetings has not increased since then. We have gained nothing from this process so far, other than further North Korean lies. Frankly I don’t see any difference in this between Obama’s Iran strategy and Trumps current North Korean strategy. I think in the end he will trade meaningful relief for a temporary and unenforceable freeze in nuclear development.

     

    The politics of instant gratification. This has been happening for 65 years. The fact that our President was invited over the border and accepted is, as Joe Biden would say, “a big effin deal”.

     

    • #8
    • July 1, 2019, at 1:49 PM PDT
    • 17 likes
  9. Jim McConnell Member

    Is that a photo of Obama behind a glass shield, or behind a Teleprompter?

    I’ve only ever seen him behind a Teleprompter.

    • #9
    • July 1, 2019, at 2:23 PM PDT
    • 18 likes
  10. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    I hope the effort Trump is making in his brokering a more rational treatment of the world by this dictator shall accomplish everything he hopes it will.

    And once he is finished in the DMZ, maybe he can take on the DMV!

    • #10
    • July 1, 2019, at 2:40 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Is that a photo of Obama behind a glass shield, or behind a Teleprompter?

    I’ve only ever seen him behind a Teleprompter.

    I’m not sure if the Secret Service put this in or if it was a permanent part of this particular observation post, assuming it was the VIP visitor OP.

    • #11
    • July 1, 2019, at 2:45 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    I ahope the effort Trump is making in his brokering a more rational treatment of the world by this dictator accomplishes everything he hopes it will.

    And once he is finished in the DMZ, maybe he can take on the DMV!

    That would be Nobel worthy, and would win him 49 of 50 states.

    • #12
    • July 1, 2019, at 2:47 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. WI Con Member

    Not sure the President’s initiative will bear fruit but the visual is striking, as are the photos of previous Presidents at the DMZ. The previous Presidents looked like we’re on the defensive – ready to resist but on the defensive nonetheless.

    The Trump visual signals movement, engagement – that the status quo is not acceptable. If he hadn’t pulled out of the Iran deal, I’d be more concerned. If this was Obama, I’d probably be savaging him but I’m confident Trump won’t give away the store.

    Stop me – I’m sounding like Peggy Noonan! Must walk away from laptop…

    • #13
    • July 1, 2019, at 3:23 PM PDT
    • 16 likes
  14. Steve C. Member

    I don’t know if Trump’s approach is going to work.

    However, it has a few things going for it.

    * Our old policy wasn’t leading to a solution. It was maintenance of the status quo.

    * The South Korean government supports Trump’s actions.

    * The Japanese government supports Trump’s actions.

    * The Red Chinese have an incentive to deal.

    As for the critics decrying Trump’s rapprochement with the Norks, we’ve lived 80 years of Realpolitik. Where the prison wardens of Eastern Europe were granted trade deals. Where the autocrats who crushed the protesters in Tianamen Square were honored to host the Olympic Games. Where a President of the United States shook hands with one of the masters of the Cuban Gulag. And where the Iranian hostage takers finally got their ransom.

    If Paris was worth a mass, maybe a nuclear free Korea is worth a photo op.

    • #14
    • July 1, 2019, at 6:05 PM PDT
    • 11 likes
  15. Sweezle Member

    Stephanie Grisham is awesome! I hope Trump makes some positive gains with NK in the future. It will not be quick but it is worth the effort for all our Asian allies. 

    • #15
    • July 1, 2019, at 6:42 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  16. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Is that a photo of Obama behind a glass shield, or behind a Teleprompter?

    I’ve only ever seen him behind a Teleprompter.

    It’s both; you are looking at the world’s first bullet-point proof Teleprompter. 

    It’s rated against all manner of weaponry. No one but Obama could get a word in edgewise. 

    • #16
    • July 1, 2019, at 7:29 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  17. Bishop Wash Member

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    I have a cousin who graduated from West Point in the late ’70s. His first deployment was to the DMZ. He wanted the hazardous assignment. Maybe times have changed. I sure hope so.

    The tree cutting incident happened in 1976 so it things were interesting in the late ‘70s. President Moon Jae-in participated in the retaliatory operation. 

    • #17
    • July 1, 2019, at 7:33 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  18. Skyler Coolidge

    I’ve always found it unacceptable that we have such places as West Berlin’s isolation, the DMZ in Korea, and the fiction that Taiwan is still part of China. There has been no reason to keep up the Korean fiction for decades, nor should we kow tow to China over Taiwan.

    I think the establishment politicians like the status quo and haven’t really wanted things to improve. Foreign policy has been institutionalized.

    When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan I saw units constantly rotating in and out of country. It became very comfortable for the military to go overseas for a tour and then return. There was no incentive to win a war. Why bother to win when you could be waging inter-division fights over what buildings to erect in Camp Leatherneck? The 1st Marine Division would make plans for a new headquarters, and 2nd Marine Division would rotate in and change the plans, only to have 1st Marine Division come back and reanimate their plans, and so on. It was mildly comical were it not a waste of money. But to me that highlighted how there was no single drive towards a consistent policy to actually end the war by winning it.

    Likewise, the acceptance of the DMZ and its “ritualized vigilance” by president after president only highlighted that no one ever had any desire to fix the divided peninsula. Why bother sticking your neck out to risk some kind of new approach when the status quo gets no attention?

    Kudos to Trump for trying something new.

    • #18
    • July 1, 2019, at 7:42 PM PDT
    • 15 likes
  19. Metalheaddoc Member

    I have a theory. Trump is a businessman. His success is predicated on completing quality deals. And the sooner, the better. Politicians know they are limited by time. As a President, someone has a maximum of 8 years to address/ignore a problem. If they can kick the can down the road, it becomes someone else’s problem and they don’t carry a burden of failure. The status quo in DC seems to be all about delaying problems until they become someone else’s. Unless a success will bolster the politicians fortunes, the plan will be to delay, delay, delay to avoid failure. An example is getting a crappy deal to say “Look! I did something!”. When the deal crashes and burns, someone else will be in office who has to pick up the pieces. 

    • #19
    • July 1, 2019, at 7:54 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  20. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Metalheaddoc (View Comment):

    I have a theory. Trump is a businessman. His success is predicated on completing quality deals. And the sooner, the better. Politicians know they are limited by time. As a President, someone has a maximum of 8 years to address/ignore a problem. If they can kick the can down the road, it becomes someone else’s problem and they don’t carry a burden of failure. The status quo in DC seems to be all about delaying problems until they become someone else’s. Unless a success will bolster the politicians fortunes, the plan will be to delay, delay, delay to avoid failure. An example is getting a crappy deal to say “Look! I did something!”. When the deal crashes and burns, someone else will be in office who has to pick up the pieces.

    And. President Trump also knows that some deals are best done if you do not show any sense of urgency to close the deal. He repeatedly says, of both Iran and NK, “I’m in no hurry now, sanctions are on, you make mistakes if you move too fast.”

    The Obama team was way too eager in Iran, while one administration after another seemed to go for short term “wins” with NK.

    • #20
    • July 1, 2019, at 8:10 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  21. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown Post author

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I’ve always found it unacceptable that we have such places as West Berlin’s isolation, the DMZ in Korea, and the fiction that Taiwan is still part of China. There has been no reason to keep up the Korean fiction for decades, nor should we kow tow to China over Taiwan.

    I think the establishment politicians like the status quo and haven’t really wanted things to improve. Foreign policy has been institutionalized.

    When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan I saw units constantly rotating in and out of country. It became very comfortable for the military to go overseas for a tour and then return. There was no incentive to win a war. Why bother to win when you could be waging inter-division fights over what buildings to erect in Camp Leatherneck? The 1st Marine Division would make plans for a new headquarters, and 2nd Marine Division would rotate in and change the plans, only to have 1st Marine Division come back and reanimate their plans, and so on. It was mildly comical were it not a waste of money. But to me that highlighted how there was no single drive towards a consistent policy to actually end the war by winning it.

    Likewise, the acceptance of the DMZ and its “ritualized vigilance” by president after president only highlighted that no one ever had any desire to fix the divided peninsula. Why bother sticking your neck out to risk some kind of new approach when the status quo gets no attention?

    Kudos to Trump for trying something new.

    Yes, and. The DMZ is distinguishable in that there was always the threat of global nuclear war behind that unsatisfactory stalemate. I do not believe Putin is underwriting Kims anymore but Xi is in a position to lay waste to our western population centers and economy. Hence the usual paralysis and President Trump trying something different.

    • #21
    • July 1, 2019, at 8:14 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Skyler Coolidge

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I’ve always found it unacceptable that we have such places as West Berlin’s isolation, the DMZ in Korea, and the fiction that Taiwan is still part of China. There has been no reason to keep up the Korean fiction for decades, nor should we kow tow to China over Taiwan.

    I think the establishment politicians like the status quo and haven’t really wanted things to improve. Foreign policy has been institutionalized.

    When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan I saw units constantly rotating in and out of country. It became very comfortable for the military to go overseas for a tour and then return. There was no incentive to win a war. Why bother to win when you could be waging inter-division fights over what buildings to erect in Camp Leatherneck? The 1st Marine Division would make plans for a new headquarters, and 2nd Marine Division would rotate in and change the plans, only to have 1st Marine Division come back and reanimate their plans, and so on. It was mildly comical were it not a waste of money. But to me that highlighted how there was no single drive towards a consistent policy to actually end the war by winning it.

    Likewise, the acceptance of the DMZ and its “ritualized vigilance” by president after president only highlighted that no one ever had any desire to fix the divided peninsula. Why bother sticking your neck out to risk some kind of new approach when the status quo gets no attention?

    Kudos to Trump for trying something new.

    Yes, and. The DMZ is distinguishable in that there was always the threat of global nuclear war behind that unsatisfactory stalemate. I do not believe Putin is underwriting Kims anymore but Xi is in a position to lay waste to our western population centers and economy. Hence the usual paralysis and President Trump trying something different.

    I suspect Trump would have had a radical approach even had he been president in 1958.

    • #22
    • July 1, 2019, at 8:57 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  23. Arahant Member

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):
    And once he is finished in the DMZ, maybe he can take on the DMV!

    Doesn’t Trump have his hands full enough without having to deal with state governmental agencies, too?

    • #23
    • July 1, 2019, at 9:39 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Valiuth Member

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Likewise, the acceptance of the DMZ and its “ritualized vigilance” by president after president only highlighted that no one ever had any desire to fix the divided peninsula. Why bother sticking your neck out to risk some kind of new approach when the status quo gets no attention?

    Kudos to Trump for trying something new.

    Oh BS! What exactly is the fix to the DMZ that you think Trump is working towards? Capitulation to the DPRK? What kind of deal over the DMZ can possibly be made given the nature and ideology of the DPRK? Trump isn’t really trying something new he is doing something old in a stupid way, while his fans pretend like something new and clever is occurring. This is Clinton’s North Korean deal all over again except we are giving the Norks more prestige and legitimacy, while patting ourselves even more on the back. 

    • #24
    • July 1, 2019, at 9:50 PM PDT
    • Like
  25. The Reticulator Member

    Clifford A. Brown:

    “I use these runs like other generals use golf,” my commander taught me. “When you are out playing golf, people talk. If the boss likes an idea, you get approval or an invitation to present it at the office. If not, you are just playing golf, so no one loses status.”

    A tweet cuts out all the formal diplomatic structures and all the reputations at risk along the way. Because it is just a tweet, and not formal policy, there is no requirement to respond.

    Hadn’t thought of either of these that way. Thanks for the insights.

    • #25
    • July 1, 2019, at 9:56 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Arahant Member

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    Trump isn’t really trying something new he is doing something old in a stupid way, while his fans pretend like something new and clever is occurring.

    I disagree. And I start by saying the chances what he is doing will work or even can work are low. But he is trying to talk Kim into wealth beyond his wildest dreams. Doing things like the presentation on beach front hotels and other capital development. It is appealing to at least one facet of human nature. “What if you could become the man who fed and freed his starving people, while getting filthy rich doing it?” “What if you could do that while escaping from the ticking time bomb that you’re sitting on?”

    • #26
    • July 1, 2019, at 10:33 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  27. James Lileks Contributor

    What does Rocket Man want? To die in bed at the age of 101 with a concubine performing her labor with the diligence of someone who knows her family will be put in the camps if she does not demonstrate the necessary enthusiasm. Between that day and today, he wants:

    A) the perpetuation of the regime’s ability to provide its military support systems with good liquor, meat, warm flats, decent underwear, and reasonably painless tooth extraction should the need arise, so the support systems keep the elite separated from the serf population, and

    B) the nomenklatura’s continued belief that they should be happy with bad liquor, tofu, intermittently warm apartments, scratchy underwear, and substandard dental care, because buying into the system saves them from the certainty of swift descent into the serf class, and 

    C) A constant flow of high-quality consumer goods for the inner party

    D) Power of life and death over everyone in the country, without question

    E) Integration into the global diplomatic and financial systems

    He won’t give up any of those; why would he? 

    • #27
    • July 1, 2019, at 10:47 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  28. Skyler Coolidge

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Likewise, the acceptance of the DMZ and its “ritualized vigilance” by president after president only highlighted that no one ever had any desire to fix the divided peninsula. Why bother sticking your neck out to risk some kind of new approach when the status quo gets no attention?

    Kudos to Trump for trying something new.

    Oh BS! What exactly is the fix to the DMZ that you think Trump is working towards? Capitulation to the DPRK? What kind of deal over the DMZ can possibly be made given the nature and ideology of the DPRK? Trump isn’t really trying something new he is doing something old in a stupid way, while his fans pretend like something new and clever is occurring. This is Clinton’s North Korean deal all over again except we are giving the Norks more prestige and legitimacy, while patting ourselves even more on the back.

    I have more faith that Trump won’t be giving anything away without getting something big in return. This is just a start. It’s the first time there has been any human interaction with North Korea. Sure, they might be trying to play us, but I hope not. And that’s what this is about, a new direction which might get a different result, WE HOPE. No guarantees.

    • #28
    • July 1, 2019, at 11:00 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  29. Arahant Member

    Hope ain’t worth what you pay for it. But there are possibilities. There is movement. Don’t hope, but definitely move.

    • #29
    • July 1, 2019, at 11:31 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. Steve C. Member

    North Korea would only be a regional concern if it could be verified that they had no nuclear weapons program. South Korea is more than capable of deterring a conventional attack. Absent nuclear weapons, we could reduce US forces in South Korea to a couple of infantry companies to show the flag in the Joint Security Area.

    • #30
    • July 2, 2019, at 5:59 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
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