President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left Singapore Tuesday after a brief summit that produced a lot of drama, a relatively vague statement of joint objectives, and a glimmer of hope that the two men can broker an agreement that ends the standoff over Kim’s nuclear weapons program without military conflict.
The first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president was, if nothing else, a drastic shift from where the two leaders stood just six months ago, trading insults and threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.
“I believe the heavy rhetoric, the insults did not help, but the president deserves credit for accepting the summit with Kim. It was a bold, risky move,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton.
Here are five important takeaways from the historic event:
Experts say the meeting between Trump and Kim was more symbolic than substantive, but symbols can still carry enormous significance.
“This is actually monumental from a symbolic standpoint,” said James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, of the summit, but he added it does not mandate much concrete action by either side.
(If you are viewing on a mobile app, click here to take the poll.)
Despite his concerns over what was left unsaid Tuesday, McKeon said the president meeting peacefully with a nuclear adversary is far preferable to the alternative.
“Anytime the White House is talking about a diplomacy-first approach over military actions is a positive not just for the U.S., not just for South Korea, not just for japan but for the entire world,” he said. “There are no viable military solutions on the Korean peninsula.”
While the summit offered a good start for stabilizing the region after years of escalating threats and provocative weapons tests, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China and commerce secretary, said the leaders must now “put meat on the bones” of negotiations.
“Beyond the glow of the initial historic meeting, we’ve got to sustain progress,” he said. “We have to go to the next step. How and when we do that is completely unknown.”
Given the threat to the U.S. posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday getting Trump and Kim in a room together was worthwhile, regardless of the lack of specificity in their agreement.
“I think the point of this was a meeting and for each leader to get a sense of the other,” Feinstein said. “I’m glad that has transpired and now there’s the opening for serious discussion.”
The “terrific” relationship
It was hard for critics of the president to miss the dissonance between Trump lashing out at “dishonest” and “weak” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau days before lavishing praise on a dictator with an atrocious human rights record who has spent years deceiving and defying the international community.
“He has to be a rough guy or he has been a rough person,” Trump told Greta Van Susteren in a Voice of America interview. “But we got along very well. He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country.”
Earlier this year, Trump devoted a significant chunk of his State of the Union address to detailing the horrible living conditions Kim’s people face.
According to Rodger Baker, senior vice president for strategic analysis at global intelligence firm Stratfor, Trump’s defense of Kim Tuesday reflects the reality that nuclear weapons are a separate issue from human rights abuses, and it may not be possible to address both at once.
“If you’re going to make progress with North Korea, you have to have direct and open dialogue with North Korea and you can’t allow these other issues to get in the way of it…,” Baker said. “You heard similar criticism to Obama going down to Cuba and meeting a Castro.”
Even some who are generally supportive of Trump were troubled by his embrace of Kim.
“While I know @potus is trying to butter him up to get a good deal, #KJU is NOT a talented guy. He inherited the family business from his dad & grandfather. He is a total weirdo who would not be elected assistant dog catcher in any democracy,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Other Republicans defended the president’s positive rhetoric as driven by his focus on denuclearization rather than ignorance of Kim’s behavior.
“The president has a clear-eyed assessment of Kim Jong Un,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “He is a dictator. He is an evil person who has done horrible things.”
The joint statement
A brief communique signed by the two leaders left far more questions unanswered than it resolved.
“President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the statement said, providing no further details of what those “security guarantees” are or what “complete denuclearization” entails.
Taken at face value, the statement offers language similar to that of past agreements that have fallen apart under the weight of North Korean transgressions.
1. US & DPRK commit to establish new relations— Department of State (@StateDept) June 12, 2018
2. US & DPRK will join efforts to build lasting & stable peace on Korean Peninsula
3. DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of Korean Peninsula
4. US & DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains https://t.co/op7un1P4SO
“It’s not really that different from past agreements,” McKeon said. “The North Koreans over the past several decades have consistently committed to denuclearization.”
Baker pointed to the future talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials promised by the statement, which suggested those officials will have more authority than in previous talks.
“Kim has clearly given his blessing to people to have those technical negotiations without always having to swing back to him, or at least that’s how it appears,” he said.
Beyond the language used, Baker also noted a different context and power dynamic and, obviously, different participants.
“[North Korea] is entering this from what they perceive as a position of strength,” he said.
The “complete denuclearization”
“It’s in the first paragraph and it says complete total denuclearization. Without that I wouldn't have been interested. I believe that he wants to get it done,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, but experts warn the document left unsaid how that term is being defined.
Historically, this has been a major sticking point in negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. For the U.S., “complete denuclearization” has meant North Korea verifiably having no nuclear weapons. For North Korea, it has also meant removing U.S. troops from South Korea and eliminating the threat that the U.S. will use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea.
“The phrasing is the North Koreans’ phrasing, and that’s the phrasing the U.S. has started to slide toward in recent weeks,” Baker said of the joint statement, which notably did not reflect the long-standing U.S. insistence on “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization.
“The North Koreans, they’re not into specifics,” Richardson said. “They don’t want timetables.”
Trump said repeatedly Tuesday that he trusts Kim to follow through, but Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, observed the president also acknowledged he might have to eventually admit he was wrong.
“The proof is going to be in the pudding… He hopes he isn’t wrong, I hope he’s not wrong but time will tell,” Grassley said.
Prior to the meeting, Trump maintained that he had so far made no concessions to Kim, but critics argued granting the North Korean leader a sit-down with the president of the United States was a major concession in itself.
The public statement signed by Trump and Kim mentioned North Korea allowing the recovery of Americans missing in action after the Korean War, and Trump claimed additional steps would be announced in the days ahead, such as further dismantling of missile test sites. In exchange, Trump told reporters the U.S. will halt joint military exercises with South Korea.
“I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do from the beginning,” he told Stephanopoulos. “We stopped playing those war games that cost us a fortune... I thought they were very provocative. But I also think they’re very expensive.”
An end to the exercises is something Pyongyang has long demanded, but experts noted it is also a very easy decision to reverse if Trump determines the exercises are necessary again.
There was some confusion Tuesday about exactly which “war games” Trump wants to stop, but Richardson called the apparent suspension of joint exercises “unfortunate.”
“This is typical of the North Koreans,” he said. “They always want you to go first in negotiations. Then they hold off.”
As Trump and Kim return to their home countries, key players in this crisis face new questions and challenges:
Kim Jong Un
Complete, verifiable nuclear disarmament could take more than a decade, experts say, but some near-term decisions will help establish Kim’s sincerity. North Korea will have to allow the U.S. and international experts to inspect and confirm it is doing what it claims.
“They’re going to have to declare warheads,” Baker said. “U.S. intelligence is going to have to verify that’s the same number of warheads we believe they have.”
Kim could also welcome recovery teams searching for remains of U.S. soldiers, as the joint statement required.
“That’s one of the things that can move very, very quickly,” Baker said.
Trump would not detail what guarantees he offered Kim, but he suggested Kim will be happy with the results if he abides by the agreement.
“His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor,” Trump told Stephanopoulos. “They're going to put it together, and I think they’re going to end up with a very strong country, and a country which has people -- that they’re so hard working, so industrious. I think if you look at South Korea, someday, maybe in the not too distant future, it will be something that.”
Trump disputed estimates that denuclearization could take up to 15 years, insisting it will happen “as fast as it can be done.”
“I’ve read horror stories. ‘It’s a 15-year process.’ Okay?” he said. “Assuming you wanted to do it quickly, I don’t believe that. I think whoever wrote that is wrong. But there will be a point at which, when you’re 20 percent through, you can’t go back.”
The president expressed confidence in Pompeo handling the next stage of negotiations, and he indicated Kim has accepted an invitation to visit the White House “at the appropriate time.”
According to Richardson, this meeting should be the first step in an ongoing negotiation process that Trump must remain directly engaged with.
“He can’t walk away now that he’s had a very substantial photo op,” he said.
If this agreement crumbles, though, some experts worry what Trump may do next.
“There are folks in the White House like National Security Adviser John Bolton who have openly advocated bombing North Korean nuclear facilities,” McKeon said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said after the summit Tuesday that Trump should send any agreement he reaches with Kim to Congress for approval. Although he remains hopeful, Graham has also drafted an authorization of use of military force as a last resort.
"I think [Trump] has convinced Kim Jong Un that he’s better off giving up his nuclear weapons than he is keeping them, and that's the goal," Graham told NBC News. "And if he has failed to do that then we're going to have a military conflict.”
Sen. Grassley also looked forward to considering a formal treaty. He was hesitant to judge Trump’s announcement about ending “war games” without further information from the Pentagon, but he expressed some doubt.
“I hope he’s right because the more we can reduce tension in that part of the world, the better, but I cannot be convinced just because the president said it,” he said.
According to Sen. Feinstein, congressional oversight will be very important as the U.S. attempts to verify North Korea’s compliance with any agreement.
“More than that, the intelligence is important and the North Korean government’s honesty about what they’re doing,” she said.
South Korean officials were reportedly caught off-guard by President Trump’s announcement that joint military exercises will be halted, but they have since lauded Trump for advancing diplomacy.
“Leaving dark days of war and conflict behind, we will write a new chapter of peace and cooperation… The June 12 Sentosa Agreement will be recorded as a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on Earth," President Moon Jae-in said in a statement.
I offer my heartfelt congratulations and welcome the success of the historic North Korea-United States summit. This is just a beginning and there may be many difficulties ahead, but we will never go back to the past again and never give up on this bold journey. pic.twitter.com/6VhFO19JJ3— 문재인 (@moonriver365) June 12, 2018
McKeon credited Moon for bringing the two leaders together.
“He has made it his goal to not only have peace on the Korean peninsula but also to make sure there’s substantive diplomatic engagement between the United States and North Korea,” he said.
The joint statement by Trump and Kim reaffirmed the declaration Kim and Moon issued after their meeting in Panmunjom in April, which called for peace, disarmament, and a formal end to the Korean War. Trump made no commitment Tuesday to draw down U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula, but he did restate his desire to get troops out of South Korea when it is possible.
“I want to get our soldiers out,” Trump said. “I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have, right now, 32,000 soldiers in South Korea, and I’d like to be able to bring them back home. But that’s not part of the equation right now.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday the United Nations should consider lifting sanctions imposed on North Korea in light of Kim’s diplomatic engagement.
"The U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been passed say that if North Korea respects and acts in accordance with the resolutions, then sanction measures can be adjusted, including to pause or remove the relevant sanctions," Shuang said at a press briefing, according to CNBC.
Trump reaffirmed at his press conference earlier in the day that the U.S. will not support sanctions relief until North Korea makes more definitive moves toward denuclearizing.
“The sanctions will come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor,” he said. “Sanctions played a big role, but they'll come off at that point. I hope it's going to be soon, but they'll come off.”
Whether the U.S. likes it or not, sanctions enforcement may ease up now that North Korea has taken some tangible steps and the world is no longer on the precipice of nuclear war.
“If everything starts to fall apart… I think the U.S. would find it much harder to regain global consensus on maximum pressure,” Baker said.
That would be regrettable, according to former Ambassador to China Locke, because it would remove North Korea’s incentive to act quickly toward the next steps in the process.
“If we take our foot off the pedal, that could just slow things down,” he said. “We want to avoid the traps and the failings of past negotiations.”