NEW YORK – The leaders of the United States and North Korea met in person and shook hands for the first time on Tuesday at a resort in the island state of Singapore, in a summit that was both praised as an “epochal event” and criticized as short on substance.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un emerged from their highly anticipated four-hour summit with a joint statement which vaguely endorsed the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a phrase that has historically confused US-DPRK negotiations.
Trump said later on Tuesday he believes Kim will move immediately on steps toward denuclearizattion and that the process is moving rapidly. “I just think that we are now going to start the process of denuclearization of North Korea. I believe that he’s going back and will start it virtually immediately,” Trump said in excerpts of an interview broadcast on Fox. “And he’s already indicated that.”
Trump said in a press conference after the summit that despite Kim’s “unwavering commitment” towards denuclearization, sanctions against North Korea would remain in effect.
The aspirational meeting was praised by the Trump administration as a historic achievement, but Republicans and Democrats at home expressed concern that the North Korean leader was placed on equal footing with their president – flanked by an equal number of American and North Korean flags and offered access, an elaborate meal and press availabilities often reserved for coveted state visits – without any meaningful concessions from Pyongyang, which has in the past year perfected the ability to deliver nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles to the US mainland.
That growing threat nearly brought the two nations to armed conflict late last year, 68 years after the Korean War first began. Trump administration officials say the president’s credible threat of military force compelled the world to impose a harsh new round of sanctions on the North Koreans and, ultimately, brought Kim to the negotiating table in Singapore.
But the first round of talks did not produce tangible commitments from the Kim regime. The Americans insist that North Korea must permanently dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but Pyongyang says it will only do so if the US withdraws its nuclear umbrella from the region – protecting historic US allies in South Korea and Japan, and deterring China – as well as its contingent of 29,000 US troops indefinitely stationed in South Korea.
While the North Koreans did not acknowledge any concessions, Trump claimed they committed to closing a missile engine testing site.
In asking them to do so, the president told them US intelligence knew where the site was “because of the heat,” possibly revealing to the North valuable sources and methods.
Trump, for his part, offered two significant concessions to Kim, suspending US joint military exercises with its regional allies and floating the possibility of a withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula.
“I’d like to be able to bring them back home,” Trump said after the summit at a joint press conference. “That’s not part of the equation right now. At some point, I hope it will be, but not right now.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money... Unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” he continued. “But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, I think it’s very provocative.”
The summit came just seven months after Trump called Kim a “little rocket man” leading his country to the brink of destruction. In a rhetorical turn, Trump now lavished Kim with praise, characterizing the young despot as a talented, charismatic and trustworthy man who “loves his people.”
“He trusts me, and I trust him,” Trump said in an interview with ABC News.
Trump expressed hope that their landmark meeting would lead to an expeditious conclusion of the nuclear crisis, decades in the making. He blamed previous presidential administrations for failing to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear march without acknowledging North Korea’s repeated cheating on past nonproliferation agreements, including a 1994 framework for disarmament and a 2012 “leap day” agreement on ballistic missile testing.
Privately, Kim told the president that his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, had diverged from diplomacy out of distrust of the US.
But he said the summit marked a the dawn of a new period, promising a changed regime on a different path.
“Today we had a historic meeting, and we’ve decided to leave the past behind – we are about to make a historic change,” Kim said.
Human rights in the hermit kingdom were not a top priority in the talks, according to US officials. Trump told reporters that he brought up the matter briefly in private, but that Kim was simply doing “what he’s seen done” in the past, and sought a brighter future for his people.
“Really, he’s got a great personality.
He’s a funny guy, he’s a very smart guy,” Trump said in one interview. Kim presides over forced labor gulags that house over 100,000 people, and has ordered at least 340 executions, including of his half-brother and uncle, according to UN observers, who compare his regime to totalitarian governments of the 20th century.
Kim has, for six months, suspended missile and nuclear tests, and claims to have destroyed one nuclear test site, although independent monitors have yet to verify this.
Kim said, in announcing the suspensions, that North Korea had achieved all it had sought in pursuing a comprehensive nuclear deterrent.
Kim’s visit to Singapore was only his third trip outside of North Korea since taking over the country in 2011.
He was accompanied by his sister, who serves as one of his closest aides, as well as North Korea’s vice chairman, foreign minister and the country’s diplomatic commission chairman.
All three men sitting beside him in his meetings with Trump have served at the top echelon of North Korean politics for over two decades.
Trump was joined by his secretary of state, national security adviser and chief of staff, as well as other senior government aides. The president first met with Kim alone for 38 minutes, joined only by their translators, before opening up their talks to their top government officials.
“Working together, we will get it taken care of,” Trump said at the beginning of their working lunch. “We will solve it. And I look forward to working on it with you.”
“I think its a prelude to peace that we gathered here and sat together after overcoming all the pressure from outside, and drastically overcoming past wrongdoings that have persistently held us back,” Kim responded, according to a translation. “Like I said just before, there would be difficulties that lie ahead when trying something completely new, but I am determined to embark on a grand new project together by using today, which we made a great start, as an opportunity.”