SALT LAKE CITY — An expert on Korean politics says it's "inconceivable" that any previous U.S. president would set foot in North Korea as President Donald Trump did over the weekend.
But it's hard to say whether Trump stepping across the border into North Korea with Kim Jong Un at his side will lead to a peace agreement or denuclearization, said BYU history professor Kirk Larsen.
"Whether you like Trump or you don’t like Trump, he very clearly doesn’t play by the rulebook. That can be good, that can be bad," he said.
"Does it really push negotiations in any real positive direction? I don’t know," Larsen said. "But Trump is definitely a showman, and this is a good show."
Critics quickly denounced the made-for-television moment as a mere photo-op.
Trump and Kim talked in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea for about an hour, marking the third face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. Trump said to expect more talks in the coming weeks.
"I would much rather see that than the threats of war that we had leading up to the first summit meeting," Larsen said. "But on the other hand, we haven't seen any real concrete progress toward a nuclear agreement or anything else."
Trump's tone toward North Korea has softened since Kim, who the president once called "little rocket man," threatened the U.S. with nuclear war two years ago.
Although the official demand is for complete denuclearization, there is some evidence that Trump would accept a freeze on nuclear weapons development and testing in the meantime, Larsen said.
"That, too, represents a softening," he said. "The only warning, obviously, is when you’re dealing with as mercurial a personality as Trump, you never know what tomorrow might bring."
Kim, though, has been fairly predictable, he said.
"If I were to characterize who is the bigger wild card at this point, I have to say it’s Trump," Larsen said.
On whether Kim would accept Trump's invitation to visit the White House, Larsen said: "Never say never."
Kim has proven more willing to travel abroad and meet with people than his father, the more reclusive Kim Jong Il, who didn't like to fly and only traveled by train, Larsen said.
But any visit to Washington would likely bring protesters, causing an image issue that would not be welcome in North Korea, he said, adding there would also be security concerns.64 comments on this story
Larsen said Trump's meeting with Kim had a fairly positive reception in South Korea, though there was some feeling that South Korean President Moon Jae In was pushed aside.
Moon has reinvigorated the on-again, off-again decadeslong effort for reconciliation between the two Koreas.
"This visit probably doesn’t hurt that but I don’t know how much it helps that path," Larsen said. He noted that there can't be full engagement as long as international sanctions remain against North Korea.