Although President Trump may be the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader, he is not the first president to visit Pyongyang or attempt to set up a meeting with the “supreme” leader of North Korea.
According to CNN, before Trump, the closest a sitting U.S. President got to meeting a North Korean leader was Bill Clinton, who was considering traveling to Pyongyang to work out a missile deal with the country toward the end of his presidency in 2000.
However, according to TIME, Clinton didn’t end up meeting with Kim Jong Un’s father. instead, he sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the meeting. Writing to the New YorkTimes in 2017, Albright recalled, “I held two days of intensive talks, during which [Kim Jong Il] appeared willing to accept more significant restraints on the missile programs than we had expected.” But she continued, “Obviously, if this dilemma were easy to resolve, it would have been settled long ago. The fundamental problem is that the North Korean leadership is convinced it requires nuclear weapons to guarantee its own survival.”
Once former President George W. Bush took office, he halted negotiations that Clinton had started with North Korea and named the country part of an “axis of evil,” in 2002. In 2007, after North Korea tested its first nuclear device the year before, Bush sent Kim Jong Il a letter that outlined the prospect of “normalized relations with the United States if North Korea fully disclosed all nuclear programs and got rid of its nuclear weapons,” according to the New York Times. Bush eventually removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, hoping to salvage the crumbling diplomatic process, but his effort ultimately failed, TIME reports.
Once President Barack Obama came into the oval office, he didn’t believe that North Korea ever seriously intended to give up its nuclear weapons, stating: “This is the same kind of pattern that we saw his father engage in and his grandfather before that,” Obama said, according to CNN. “Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was, we’re not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don’t get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.”
Once President Trump was elected, Obama reportedly warned Trump that North Korea would be his most urgent foreign policy threat, according to TIME.
With President Trump in the process of trying to work out a serious deal with North Korea regarding the permanent denuclearization of the country, he has become the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean dictator. There have been mixed reviews about the summit, with some claiming that North Korea still doesn’t intend to give up their nuclear weapons and that it would be a waste of time for Trump to meet with Kim, while others feel that the meeting is worth a talk, at the very least.
Bush’s former deputy press secretary Tony Fratto weighed in favorably on Trump’s decision on Twitter Thursday. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting, even if the chances of success are exceedingly slim,” he wrote. “Kim & his father have played the freeze game before. But the other options are military strikes, or years (decades?) more of privation for millions of innocents in NK. So talk.”
In 2009, Clinton also flew to North Korea for a visit on a mission to free two imprisoned US journalists used by Pyongyang as leverage to lure a significant American to the country. Another ex-president, Jimmy Carter, visited in 2010 and returned with another jailed American.
Speculation that North Korea wants America to treat the country as an equal, as well as its desire to bring high-profile visitors to the country, have been floating around for decades. North Korea got exactly that when Clinton flew to the country, and is getting the same media coverage with Trump’s high-profile visit.
“Just by showing up to see Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump would give his murderous dynasty what it has always craved — the prestige and propaganda coup of a meeting of equals with the President of the United States,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote.
“North Korea has been seeking a summit with an American president for more than twenty years,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International studies tweeted Thursday night. “It has literally been a top foreign policy goal of Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il invited Bill Clinton.”
However, the meeting is still expected to be tense between the two world leaders. Since Trump became president, he and Kim have relentlessly taunted each other, with Trump calling Kim “little rocket man,” Kim calling Trump a “dotard,” and the two comparing the size of their “proverbial nuclear buttons,” TIME reports.