SINGAPORE. – United States President Donald Trump shook hands with Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea yesterday and offered a major concession during the first summit meeting between their nations, a momentous step in an improbable courtship between the world’s largest nuclear power and the most reclusive one.
Brash, impulsive leaders who only a few months ago taunted each other across a nuclear abyss, Trump and Kim set aside their threats in a gamble that for now, at least, personal diplomacy can counteract decades of enmity and distrust.
Emerging from a day of talks in Singapore and speaking to reporters for more than an hour, Trump said he was suspending joint military exercises with South Korean forces and that he was confident Kim would begin dismantling his nuclear arsenal “very quickly.”
But Trump said economic sanctions against the North would remain in place until the North did more.
Trump’s decision to suspend the war games – which he described as “very expensive” but also “very provocative” given the continuing negotiations – appeared to take South Korea by surprise.
It was the latest twist in the international drama over the fate of the North’s nuclear programme and a complete reversal by the Trump administration, which had previously said the exercises were important to defend an ally and not negotiable.
It was also a remarkable bet by Trump that he can persuade Kim to follow through on pledges to surrender his nuclear weapons that are almost identical to those the North has made – and broken – in the past.
“We’re very proud of what took place today,” Trump said. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past.”
In a televised ceremony in which the two leaders signed a joint statement, Kim thanked Trump for making their face-to-face talks possible. “We had a historic meeting and decided to leave the past behind,” he said, adding that “the world will see a major change.”
In the statement they signed, Trump “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea, and Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
But the statement did not go much further than previous ones and was short on details, including any timetable or verification measures.
Asked if Kim had agreed to denuclearise, Trump said, “We’re starting that process very quickly – very, very quickly – absolutely.”
The joint statement said the two nations would hold “follow-on negotiations” led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a high-level North Korean official “at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes” of the summit meeting.
It also said the two countries would “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the divided peninsula, meaning talks to reduce military tensions that could eventually lead to a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War.
The day began with a carefully choreographed encounter in which Trump and Kim strode toward each other, arms extended, in the red-carpeted reception area of a Singapore hotel built on the site of a British colonial outpost.
Posing before a wall of American and North Korean flags, Trump put his hand on the younger leader’s shoulder. Then the two, alone except for their interpreters, walked off to meet privately in an attempt to resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
“I feel really great,” Trump said. “It’s going to be a great discussion and, I think, tremendous success. I think it’s going to be really successful, and I think we will have a terrific relationship. I have no doubt.”
A more sober-sounding Kim said: “It was not easy to get here. The past worked as fetters on our limbs, and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward. But we overcame all of them, and we are here today.”
Later, as they reconvened with top aides, Trump declared of the nuclear impasse, “Working together, we will get it taken care of.”
Kim responded, “There will be challenges ahead, but we will work with Trump.” Their negotiators had failed to make much headway in working-level meetings before the meeting, leaving Trump and Kim with little common ground ahead of what could be months or even years of talks.
But this was a negotiation that followed no known playbook: Two headstrong men – one 34 years old, the other 71, products of wealth and privilege, but with lives so dissimilar they were practically from different planets – coming together to search for a deal that eluded their predecessors.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who worked intensely to help broker the meeting, underlined its historic nature.
Moon urged a “bold give-and-take” to make it successful. But he said that regardless of whatever agreement was produced, it would be just the beginning of what could be a long, bumpy process of ridding North Korea of a nuclear arsenal it has spent decades building.
“Even after the two heads of state open the gate,” Moon said, “it will take a long process to achieve a complete solution. We don’t know how long it will take: one year, two years or more.”
Meanwhile, North Korea’s state media lauded Singapore yesterday as they highlighted Kim Jong Un’s visit to some of its top tourist attractions. – New York Times/AP/AFP.