What Trump is missing by skipping the DMZ

Lawmakers who have visited the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone between North and South Korea say President Donald Trump should make the trek as well — and that it would teach him a lot about the real-life consequences of “fire and fury.”

The DMZ isn’t on the itinerary for Trump’s 13-day Asia trip, which will take him to South Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Instead, he’s scheduled to visit U.S. troops at an Army garrison south of Seoul.) But Americans who have been to the border say it would offer him a “surreal” and “eerie” experience, in a territory where North Korean soldiers watch visitors’ every move and a major Westernized city lies an easy bus ride away.

“North Korean soldiers come running down and they’re filming you,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who visited the demilitarized zone during the spring. “They were right up next to the window five feet from you being aggressive with cameras. You had this real sense of tension.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said seeing the DMZ in person would show Trump the potential costs of the rhetoric he has been trading with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“When the president talks about his various ways of threatening the North and uses terms like ‘fire and fury’ … it conveys an impression that the president believes we have a military route to being able to destroy North Korea with no consequences,” Merkley said. “A trip to the DMZ helps embed the understanding that that is not the case. You attack North Korea, there are huge consequences for South Korea and a huge loss of life.”

But some say it’s just as well that Trump plans to skip it.

Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, visited the DMZ in 2013 and agreed that seeing the zone could be a “wake-up call” for the president. But she worried that Trump would only use the visit to further increase tensions and provoke Kim.

“I don’t trust Trump to stand on a heavily militarized border and act with restraint,” she said.

Several lawmakers who visited the DMZ on congressional delegations said the most striking thing they realized is just how close Seoul is to the border. It’s only about 35 miles — a distance that can easily be covered by North Korean artillery stationed on the border with the city in its cross-hairs.

“It’s extremely real when you’re standing there. When you realize how close you are to artillery, the whole time we were there in Seoul and DMZ … we were in range of artillery,” Byrne said. “You feel it. You are threatened by what they’re doing there.”

Even if North Korea doesn’t use its developing nuclear capabilities, conventional weapons alone could kill up to 300,000 people in the first days of a military conflict on the Korean peninsula, according to a new Congressional Research Service report obtained by Bloomberg.

Vice President Mike Pence visited the DMZ earlier this year. And Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spoke with U.S. and South Korean troops at the border about the need to end the nuclear crisis with diplomacy.

“We’re doing everything we can to solve this diplomatically — everything we can,” he told the troops in late October.

Trump’s visit to Seoul and meetings with military leaders could still be eye-opening, even without a trip north to the border.

He’s expected to visit with American and South Korean troops at Camp Humphreys on Tuesday before meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He’s also expected to visit the National Cemetery in Seoul, a White House official said.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who visited the DMZ this summer, said he doesn’t view a trip to the zone as “make or break” for Trump.

“The fact that he’s going is significant, regardless of whether he goes up to the DMZ,” he said.

But there are things Trump would only see on a trip to the border.

For instance, Merkley described seeing large slabs of concrete along the road to the DMZ that could be triggered to come “crashing down at a moment’s notice,” making the road impassible in case of an invasion by North Korea.

In the DMZ itself, visitors describe a large building on the South Korean border and another on the North Korean border. Each has steps going down to a valley where the actual border is located, and there is a hut where officials can enter from both sides to meet and talk.

North Korean soldiers routinely approach the hut and press a video camera against the window to film people inside, according to several visitors.

“We couldn’t even do things like raise our hand or stuff like that to make sure they wouldn’t misinterpret it,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said.

At a checkpoint not far from that area, visitors can see a propaganda village in the distance, built to send a false message to South Korea that their northern neighbors are prosperous and successful.

Merkley said the size of the fake village is “impressive,” and Byrne said patriotic North Korean music was blaring during his visit.

Near the border is a memorial where a tree once stood. In 1976, North Koreans killed two U.S. soldiers who were trying to trim the poplar tree that was blocking the guards’ view of the border. The attackers used the ax that the soldiers had been using for pruning.

The incident is a stark reminder that the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace agreement, and that the peninsula is still technically at war.

Half a dozen lawmakers interviewed by POLITICO said they thought Trump should visit the DMZ during his trip, especially at a time when both sides are delivering increasingly more provocative rhetoric.

“It’d be good for him to go there,” Byrne said. “It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to see it.”