It was a moment that will surely live on in history books: President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands in front of a row of six American and six North Korean flags.
The first ever summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader concluded Tuesday in Singapore with a joint declaration that was long on ambition but short on details.
In exchange for unspecified “security guarantees” from the United States, North Korea agreed to an “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will now dig in with North Korean officials to hash out the details.
Here are five takeaways from a historic day.
The summit couldn’t have gone better for Kim
Kim, who is accused of assassinating relatives and executing scores of his citizens, appeared to get his top outcome from the meeting: legitimacy on the international stage.
“This whole Singapore meeting, didn’t it look like a big coming out party for North Korea as the world’s newest nuclear weapons state?” Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow and Korea chair at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), told reporters on a post-summit conference call.
Even before the summit, Kim was being treated more like a rock star than a dictator around Singapore, getting cheers as he toured the city-state.
The equal number of alternating flags for each country sent a message of parity between a global superpower and the world’s most reclusive state.
Better yet, from Kim’s perspective, was Trump calling him a “very talented man” and a “worthy negotiator.”
Kim did little of substance in response.
The joint declaration specifies no timeline for denuclearization nor it does have steps to verify disarmament. It also refers to denuclearization on the entire Korean Peninsula — Pyongyang’s preferred phrasing — and does not include the words “verifiable” and “irreversible” despite months of U.S. statements.
Trump also agreed to something North Korea has sought for years: the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
Trump sticks it to the foreign policy establishment
Trump has never been shy about brushing up against foreign policy taboos and appears to have reveled in his unconventional approach to nuclear diplomacy.
On his way to Singapore, he rattled the foreign policy establishment by backing out of a signing a joint communiqué with the Group of Seven and calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak.”
Asked at the end of his summit with Kim about praising an adversary after insulting an ally, Trump said the United States was being “taken advantage of” by “virtually every” other G-7 country.
Meanwhile, Trump racked up headlines about how historic it was for a sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader, and the summit was broadcast live across the globe.
Trump contends that he didn’t give Kim any concessions while winning the release in May of three American hostages.
“Sure, they got a meeting,” Trump said after the summit. “But only a person that dislikes Donald Trump would say that I’ve agreed to make a big commitment.”
Trump’s concession on war games shocks
Trump framed his surprise announcement that joint war games with South Korea would be halted while negotiations with North Korea continue as a cost-saving measure, but echoed Pyongyang’s criticism of the drills as “very provocative.”
The concession appeared to be significant, but there’s some confusion about what it means. Administration officials and Republican lawmakers argued Tuesday whether there is a difference between the large-scale war games Trump wants to end and small-scale day-to-day training.
The Pentagon insists Defense Secretary James Mattis was consulted, though the department issued no information Tuesday on whether any exercises will be halted or scaled back.
Regardless of how the announcement is implemented, neither South Korea nor Japan appear to have been consulted beforehand.
“My understanding is the South Koreans had very little, if any, forewarning of that, and so that naturally creates concerns on the part of both allies,” said Victor Cha, who was previously under consideration to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.
It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has canceled exercises during talks with Pyongyang. In 1994, the United States and South Korea canceled their Team Spirit military exercises while hashing out the Agreed Framework.
But Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at CSIS, said that move was “carefully coordinated” with allies.
“This came as a complete surprise to Japan and Korea and the Defense Department, and against a backdrop of the president of the United States saying that he wants to pull our troops out of Asia,” Green said.
China is happy
Outside of Pyongyang, there’s another capital that will pleased at joint U.S.-South Korea military drills stopping: Beijing.
China had been a main proponent of the so-called freeze-for-freeze, where the United States would halt military drills in exchange for an end to North Korean nuclear and missile tests.
Trump also said that while the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea was not on the table Tuesday, at “some point” he wants to “get our soldiers out.” China has long wanted a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula.
“When Trump said I want to get our soldiers out, I am sure that that is music to China’s ears,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at CSIS.
Trump also appeared to implicitly endorse China’s reported loosening of sanctions enforcement since the talks with North Korean began.
At the top of his press conference, Trump thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping, “who has really closed up that border, maybe a little bit less so over the last couple of months, but that’s okay.” Trump added later that the opening of the Chinese-North Korean border “is what it is.”
Later Tuesday, China raised the possibility of sanctions relief for North Korea.
“The relevant Security Council resolutions stipulate that we shall adjust sanction measures as may be needed in light of [North Korea’s] compliance, including suspending or lifting relevant sanction measures,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
Peace lives to see another day
Despite all the consternation over concessions, tensions that pushed the United States and North Korea to the brink of war last year were nowhere to be found Tuesday.
Indeed, even some who were disappointed in a lack of specifics from the joint statement said Trump had to be commended for pursuing diplomacy.
“On the positive side of the summit, one, we are now on a path to diplomacy rather than military confrontation and easing of tension in the Korean Peninsula because of this historic summit,” former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson said on a conference call with reporters. “Another positive would be the fact that there’s a process started, a process of continued negotiations.”
Cha similarly said the bar for peace was cleared, even if that’s a low bar.
“If the bar for success in this summit is war or peace, it’s a pretty low bar,” he said. “We got peace. So in that sense, we’re certainly in a better place than we were six months ago when there was a lot of talk about preventive military attacks and armed conflict.”
Where diplomacy goes from here is unclear. Pompeo is set to lead the U.S. side of negotiations, but North Korea did not name a specific negotiator in the joint statement.
Trump said he’d be willing to go to Pyongyang “at the appropriate time” and that Kim accepted his invitation to visit the White House “a little bit further down the road.”
Chatter in foreign policy circles suggests Kim could speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. From there, it’s just a short flight to Washington. (TheHill)