The handshake was historic. The words? Not so much.
President Trump on Tuesday touted his unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a breakthrough that would ease decades of tensions that have made the Korean Peninsula one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
But the four-point joint statement the two men signed fell short of previous international accords reached with Pyongyang and left big questions unanswered.
"We're prepared to start a new history, and we're ready to write a new chapter," a relaxed and triumphant Trump said at a news conference after the one-day summit in Singapore. He called the outcome a "first, bold step for a brighter future."
"The world will see a major change," Kim had declared as the two men stood side-by-side in front of a phalanx of U.S. and North Korean flags.
It was one more sign of how Trump is rewriting long-standing fundamentals of American foreign policy. He described Kim, a despotic adversary, as a "talented" leader who could be trusted. That came just days after he blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a democratic ally, as "weak" and "dishonest" after a combative Group of Seven economic summit.
The North Koreans "wanted to make a deal, and making a deal is a great thing for the world," Trump said. The president dismissed the idea that the summit itself represented a major concession by the United States that had won little concrete in return.
For more than an hour at a wide-ranging news conference, Trump basked in what he portrayed as a legacy-making achievement. He fielded questions from reporters from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, joking with some about favorable or unfavorable stories they had written about him in the past.
The contrast was head-spinning with a president who less than a year ago was threatening "fire and fury like the world has never seen" against a growing North Korean threat. Now, he offered free advice on the real estate possibilities in the Hermit Kingdom, still the most isolated country in the world. "They have great beaches," he joked. "Wouldn't that make a great condo?"
While there was skepticism about whether Trump could provide evidence of substantive progress, there was little doubt Kim got what he wanted: a meeting with a sitting U.S. president, a prize that eluded his father and grandfather. The two men stood as equals on stage, and Trump said he was "honored" to be there. With that picture alone, Kim bolstered the global legitimacy of what had been seen as a pariah state.
Indeed, Trump said he would invite Kim "at the appropriate time" to visit the White House.
For now, Trump said tough sanctions on North Korea would remain in place until the denuclearization process was well underway. But he said the United States would stop the joint military exercises with South Korea that North Korea has long protested as provocative. (In the past, the U.S. has described them as defensive.) At some point down the road, Trump said, he would like to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.
In the accord, Kim reaffirmed the commitment he made in the Panmunjom Declaration with South Korea in April "to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." That promise was less far-reaching and less specific than the agreement North Korea signed at the so-called six-party talks in 2005. Then, Pyongyang promised to abandon all nuclear weapons, to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to submit to international inspections.
The new joint statement included no deadlines, no timetables and no verification regimes. It didn't include the adjectives for denuclearization the president had declared as his goal before the summit: "complete, verifiable and irreversible."
And it left unmentioned Pyongyang's notorious human-rights abuses, including its treatment of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia college student who was held captive for 17 months and then released in a coma. Human rights were discussed "relatively briefly" compared with denuclearization, Trump said, and when pressed, he said there was "not much I can do right now" about the thousands of North Koreans imprisoned in labor camps.
Trump said only that Warmbier "didn't die in vain" and that his tragedy helped create conditions that led to the summit. It was almost precisely one year earlier, on June 13, 2017, that Warmbier was returned to the United States. He died a few days later without regaining consciousness.
Trump said he believed Kim was committed to denuclearization, a process he said would begin "very, very quickly." North Korea has broken its international promises before; could it be trusted this time? "I may be wrong; I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, 'Hey, I was wrong,'" the president replied, though it was clear that was a future he didn't foresee. He added breezily, "I don't know that I'll ever admit that, but I'll find some kind of excuse."
Next will come follow-on negotiations called for in the accord, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a senior North Korean official. They are promised to begin "at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes."
"Handshakes matter,' said David Reynolds, a Cambridge historian and author of Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century. "A handshake matters and that handshake between Kim and trump matters as a symbolic thing. But there is a substantive side of summitry that takes weeks to work through before we know if this is a breakthrough or not.'
Contributing: Gregory Korte
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