I think President Trump might be considering setting foot inside North Korea, next month, during his visit to South Korea.
I base this supposition on the reporting Tuesday by South Korea's Yonhap news agency that the White House is considering a visit to the Panmunjom truce village which separates North Korea from the South. According to Yonhap's source, "The White House dispatched an advance team of working-level officials in late September to check candidate sites" including "Panmunjom and Observation Post-Ouellette." These visits pertain to a mysterious "special activity."
But while Observation Post Oullette is a famous point from which to check out or glare at North Korea and thus a frequent stopping point for U.S. presidents — both George W. Bush and Barack Obama visited during their terms — Panmunjom, or the "Joint Security Area" as it's officially known, is a different matter. The photos below tell the tale.
The first photo looks into North Korean territory, demarcated by the dividing line between the two blue buildings. Normally, North Korea soldiers stand eye-to-eye with the South Korean military personnel in the photo. The second photo shows the inside view of the blue buildings, as a North Korean soldier observes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The photos prove that any visitor to Panmunjom is physically very close to armed North Korean military personnel. Yet the blue buildings aren't just for show, they are used for meetings between North and South Korean representatives and evenly divided between the two nations territory. But because the demarcation point inside the buildings is not restricted by either side, tour guides allow tourists to step into North Korean territory.
That seems like just the sort of action Trump would revel in — a foot on their soil, a finger in their eye.
It would be a mistake for two reasons.
First off, as I'm sure the U.S. Secret Service advance team will have assessed, the risks are too great. With North Korean forces at Panmunjom possessing an array of weapons, Trump's attendance would render him vulnerable to attack. That threat is why U.S. Cabinet secretaries tend to visit Panmunjom, and presidents visit the observation post (which can be protected with bulletproof glass). As I've noted, Kim Jong Un's rationality might be in doubt, but his obsession with assassinations most certainly is not.
Second, were Trump to step inside North Korean territory even for a moment, the regime might lash out. As his frequent purges of senior leadership figures and family members suggest, Kim is obsessed with his internal perception of power as much as his power itself. Were Trump seen to challenge this power, he might respond in an irrational manner. To get a diplomatic deal with Kim, Trump must strike the right balance between limiting Kim's policy options by deterring and sanctioning him, and avoiding boxing the North Korean leader in.
But don't get me wrong, I recognize Trump needs to send a message to push China toward tougher economic sanctions on Kim, and to better deter North Korea. Still, balancing security to effective strategy, Trump should not step inside North Korea. Instead, under cover of Secret Service countersniper and counterassault teams, Trump should tour Observation Post Ouellette, and meet with U.S. forces.
And there at the Demilitarized Zone, the president should remind the world that men and women like Pfc. William Ouellette Jr. remain standing "in front of them all."