SINGAPORE – President Donald Trump wrapped up his five-hour nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with surprisingly warm words and hope for “a bright new future” for Kim’s isolated and impoverished nation. Yet he immediately faced pointed questions at home about whether he got little and gave away much in his push to make a deal with the young autocrat – including an agreement to halt U.S. military exercises with South Korea.
Meeting with staged ceremony on a Singapore island, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement Tuesday agreeing to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, although the timeline and tactics were left unclear. Trump later promised to end “war games” with ally South Korea, a concession to Kim that appeared to catch the Pentagon and Seoul government off guard and sowed confusion among Trump’s Republican supporters in Washington.
The head-scratching was a fitting end for a meeting marked by unpredictability. The face to face was unthinkable just months earlier as the two leaders traded insults and nuclear threats. In agreeing to the summit, Trump risked granting Kim his long-sought recognition on the world stage in hopes of ending the North’s nuclear program.
While progress on the nuclear question was murky, the leaders spent the public portions of their five hours together expressing optimism and making a show of their new relationship. Trump declared he and Kim had developed “a very special bond.” He gave Kim a glimpse of the presidential limousine. Kim, for his part, said the leaders had “decided to leave the past behind” and promised, “The world will see a major change.”
Soon, Kim was on a plane headed home, while a clearly ebullient Trump held forth for more than an hour before the press on what he styled as a historic achievement to avert the prospect of nuclear war. Before leaving himself, Trump tossed out pronouncements on U.S. alliances, human rights and the nature of the accord that he and Kim had signed.
The details of how and when the North would denuclearize appear yet to be determined, as are the nature of the unspecified “protections” Trump is pledging to Kim and his government.
As Trump acknowledged that denuclearization would not be accomplished overnight, the North suggested Wednesday that Trump had moved away from his demand for complete denuclearization before U.S. sanctions on the long-isolated country are removed.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that the two leaders “shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The White House did not immediately respond to the North Korean characterization of the deal.
The Singapore accord largely amounts to an agreement to continue discussions, echoing previous public statements and commitments. It does not, for instance, include an agreement to take steps toward ending the technical state of warfare between the U.S. and North Korea.
Nor does it detail plans for North Korea to demolish a missile engine testing site, a concession Trump said he’d won, or Trump’s promise to end military exercises in the South while negotiations between the U.S. and the North continue. Trump cast that decision as a cost-saving measure, but also called the exercises “inappropriate” while talks continue. North Korea has long objected to the drills as a security threat.
It was unclear whether South Korea was aware of Trump’s decision before he announced it publicly. U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement Tuesday it was unaware of any policy change. Trump phoned South Korean President Moon Jae-in after leaving Singapore to brief him on the discussions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Seoul Wednesday for follow-up meetings.
The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s and has used them in a variety of drills. The next scheduled major exercise, involving tens of thousands of troops, normally is held in August.
The Pentagon said Tuesday it was consulting with the White House and others, but was silent on whether the August exercise would proceed. Mattis’ chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, told reporters he was “in full alignment” with Trump.