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Trump would be 5th U.S. leader at the DMZ

June 29,2019
U.S. President Donald Trump’s message for Pyongyang is the subject of growing interest, especially as anticipation mounts that he may visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bordering North Korea during his visit to Seoul this weekend.

Trump, if he stops by the DMZ, will be the fifth U.S. president to do so. He will become the first U.S. leader to visit in seven years since former President Barack Obama.

Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has visited the DMZ, with the exception of George H.W. Bush, who previously visited as Reagan’s vice president.

Reagan visited in November 1983, Bill Clinton in July 1993, George W. Bush in February 2002 and Barack Obama in March 2012. The presidents all visited the DMZ during their first terms.

Previous U.S. presidents have made trips to the DMZ amid tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs, and their visits to the location itself sent a message to Pyongyang. It has also been an opportunity to emphasize the strength of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Yet Trump’s visit to Seoul on Saturday and Sunday, his second as president after his trip in November 2017, comes following the historic first and second North Korea-U.S. summits and amid ongoing denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang over the past year.

The previous four U.S. presidents have generally shared similar patterns in their trips to the heavily fortified inter-Korean border.

Reagan and other presidents sported bomber-style jackets during their visits to the DMZ. They generally looked out over the border to the North with binoculars at Observation Post Ouellette in Camp Bonifas at the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Paju, Gyeonggi.

Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command post near the military demarcation line (MDL), was renamed in 1986 after U.S. Army Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and another U.S. officer were killed by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers during a clash inside the DMZ on Aug. 18, 1976. Observation Post Ouellette is named after a U.S. soldier, Joseph R. Ouellette, who died in September 1950 during the Nakdong River Battle of the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War (1950-53). It is located just 25 meters (82 feet) away from the MDL, and through binoculars, North Korea’s frontline towns can be spotted.

‘’You are on the frontlines of freedom,’’ President Reagan told U.S. troops at the DMZ on Nov. 13, 1983. ‘’The communist system to the north is based on hatred and oppression.’’

President Bill Clinton’s visit to the DMZ on July 11, 1993, came just four months after North Korea’s announced it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in March that year.

“When you examine the nature of the American security commitment to Korea, to Japan, to this region, it is pointless for them to try to develop nuclear weapons,” said Clinton. “Because if they ever use them, it would be the end of their country.”

Bush, after his visit to the DMZ, said in a joint press conference with then-President Kim Dae-jung on Feb. 20, 2002, “I am concerned about a country that is not transparent, that allows for starvation, that develops weapons of mass destruction.”

Despite having described North Korea before as an “axis of evil,” Bush also said, “South Korea has no intention of attacking North Korea, nor does America. We’re purely defensive. And the reason we have to be defensive is because there is a threatening position on the DMZ […] It is in our nation’s interest that we achieve peace on the peninsula.”

Obama visited the DMZ on March 25, 2012, on the eve of the second anniversary of the torpedoing of the South Korean Navy’s Cheonan warship by the North on March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors.

“You guys are at freedom’s frontier,” Obama told U.S. troops at Camp Bonifas. “The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom and in terms of prosperity.”

What was supposed to be a surprise visit by President Trump to the DMZ on Nov. 8, 2017, was aborted at the last minute due to heavy fog that prevented his helicopter from taking off. He was unable to join President Moon Jae-in, who had already been waiting at the DMZ after arriving earlier.

During this visit to Seoul, Trump gave an address to the Korean National Assembly and delivered a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying: “We will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable and total denuclearization.”

Under the current situation, following the June 12, 2018, joint statement signed by Kim and Trump, and the second summit in Hanoi that ended with no deal, leading to the current impasse in talks, Trump is expected to deliver a message that recognizes the ongoing negotiations.

Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said, “Unlike in the past, at a time when we are seeking momentum in the North-U.S. dialogue, President Trump’s visit to the DMZ will send a strong message on resuming talks. There is a high likelihood that Trump will visit the DMZ because it also shows to Seoul a strong South Korea-U.S. alliance.”

BY SARAH KIM, BAEK MIN-JEONG [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]