The Trump-Kim Summit: Reality TV or a New Era?
In Singapore, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement to “work toward” complete denuclearization. But two other key words long sought by the U.S.—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing.Photograph by Evan Vucci / AP
Three days after angering his six closest Western allies, President Trump embraced Asia’s most notorious dictator at a steamy resort in Singapore and heralded a “very special bond” in new relations between the United States and North Korea. Trump and Kim signed a two-page statement—big on ideas but slim on specifics—that committed North Korea to “complete denuclearization” and said that the United States would “provide security guarantees” for a country with which it is still technically at war.
“We’re very proud of what took place today,” Trump said, after the two men, appearing relaxed after three rounds of talks, signed the four-point declaration. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has been in the past. We both want to do something.” The President said that the world will be “very impressed, very happy” as the two nations take care of “a very dangerous problem for the world.”
Kim chimed in, saying, “We had a very historic meeting and agreed to leave the past behind. The world will see a major change.”
The four-point statement committed the countries to establishing new diplomatic relations. It pledged to “join efforts” to build a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, and that would appear to include South Korea. In especially vague terms, North Korea reaffirmed an agreement—originally made between the two Koreas at their historic summit on April 27th—to “work toward” complete denuclearization. Two other key words long sought by the United States—“verifiable” and “irreversible”—were missing. Finally, the two nations vowed to recover the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, in which more than thirty-three thousand Americans were killed. Almost eight thousand American troops remain unaccounted for.
Trump also announced that he would cancel regularly scheduled military exercises—which he referred to as “war games”—with South Korea, which have been pivotal to South Korea’s security. Trump called the exercises, which will next take place in August, “provocative,” adopting North Korea’s position and language on both terms. The United States still has twenty-eight thousand troops in the South.
In Washington, there is broad support for Trump’s diplomacy, especially after a year of threatening rhetoric that seemed to move the U.S. and North Korea ominously close to war. Ten months ago, the President warned Kim of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Yet former U.S. negotiators with North Korea and senior military experts who worked on the issue were distinctly unimpressed—even baffled—by the lack of substance at the summit, the first meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.
“As hyped as the meeting was, the result is underwhelming,” Wendy Sherman, who was a top negotiator with North Korea in the Clinton and Obama Administrations and the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, said. “The document not only doesn’t break new ground—it is less than previous documents, including the 1992 Joint Declaration, the Agreed Framework of 1994, and the September, 2005, Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks.” All were diplomatic initiatives by the three previous Presidents that eventually collapsed because Pyongyang was found to be cheating or in violation of its pledges.
All earlier efforts by both Republican and Democratic Administrations emphasized verification, the core issue in virtually every U.S. agreement on nuclear-arms control with any nation, and incorporated international accords such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Trump also gave Kim a “major concession” without equivalent reciprocal steps, Sherman added, by cancelling joint exercises with South Korea.
The government in Seoul appeared surprised by the cancellation. “We need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point,” the South Korean President’s office said, in a statement. The Pentagon also appeared to be caught off guard by the announcement, the Times reported. Defense Secretary James Mattis has long backed the U.S.-South Korean exercises as central to America’s role in East Asia. Pentagon officials both in Seoul and Washington said they had received no new instructions and were still planning for exercises that are now only a couple of months away.
The brief statement “landed with a thud,” Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, told me. “No new commitments from Kim on denuclearization, or even a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs. No new assurances from the United States. The statement mostly reiterates what was said at the inter-Korean summit, and sets vague plans for future meetings. We knew there was a long way to go, but this statement makes very little progress.”
Pyongyang and Beijing are the big winners coming out of the summit, especially because of the limits on U.S. military activities in South Korea. Trump had also suggested earlier that he might draw down U.S. troops, who have been stationed on the Peninsula for seven decades. “Kim got a huge propaganda win and a metric ton of legitimacy,” Denmark said. “Expect North Korean media to replay these images for years, showing how the world respects Kim and that North Korea is now recognized as an equal to the United States and the other great powers of the world. Kim gave up nothing new.” China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, got everything that it wanted, too.
At the press conference, Trump said he has extended an invitation to Kim to visit the White House at some “appropriate” time in the future, implying after progress has been made with “denuclearization”—the pivotal concept that's still not spelled out specifically in the statement. Kim accepted the invitation, the President said, adding, “There’s no limit to what North Korea can achieve if it gives up its nuclear weapons.” The White House prepared a four-minute video to illustrate the potential for Kim—and the alternatives.
“A new world can begin today—one of respect, friendship, and good will,” the narrator vows, referring to Trump and Kim as “two men, two leaders, one destiny.” The video features high-rise condo units, drones, packed grocery stores, car-assembly plants, and babies in modern incubators. “The past does not have to be the future,” the narrator says. “It comes down to a choice.” The video then shows the bleak future without diplomacy: bombs going off, troops at the demilitarized zone. “The future remains to be written.”
The brief summit—originally scheduled for two days—was rife with lofty language from the President about the North Korean leader, who has executed members of his own family to consolidate power. “Well, he is very talented,” Trump said. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did, at twenty-six years of age, and is able to run it, and run it tough.”
The summit was historic simply because it allowed the socialization of two countries at war, and it “didn’t obviously fly off the rails,” James (Spider) Marks, a retired major general who was a senior intelligence officer on North Korea, told me. But a “Presidential pat on the back does not connote trust. It can start trust-building, and we all should hope that that is the intended outcome.”
The danger is that the new U.S.-North Korean agreement offers no guidelines on how to convert principles into disarmament practice, or even of how many arms it covers. The Administration has previously thrown in all of North Korea’s intercontinental missiles and its biological and chemical weapons. “Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether the two sides are on the same page about definitions and the pace, and the sequencing of many steps involved in the complete ‘denuclearization’ of the Korean peninsula,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement. North Korea has yet to provide a full rundown of its deadliest weapons; the agreement offers no details on timing or process. It also does not mention who will oversee the three big steps—the dismantlement of the nuclear arsenal, the verification of that dismantlement, and future inspections. Will part of it be done by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that has been central to many such inspections? Or will the United States claim most or all of the roles? The I.A.E.A has already said it is gearing up to participate.
The most conspicuous item missing from the statement was the issue of human rights, which has been central to U.S. policy for decades. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are believed to be held by Kim’s regime, according to human-rights groups. The American Otto Warmbier died within days of his release from a North Korean prison because of alleged torture that left him brain-damaged. Trump—who called his North Korean counterpart “very smart” and “talented”—was repeatedly pressed on whether he brought it up. The President actually cited Warmbier as the pivot to diplomacy. “Otto did not die in vain,” he said at a press conference before leaving Singapore. “I think, without Otto, this would not have happened.”
Sherman was outraged. “The President’s comments on human rights—that those in labor camps would be winners, that this meeting wouldn’t have happened but for Otto Warmbier’s death, and that Kim was loved by his people and was trustworthy—those comments are not worthy of a President of the United States,” she said.
Others urged separating the issues immediately at hand. “Let’s not roll the Kim regime’s egregious and undeniable human-rights violations into our evaluation of success of the summit,” Marks said. “This is about reducing the clear and present danger of global nuclear annihilation, not human rights.” The irony of the President’s approach, however, is that it exactly mirrors what the Obama Administration did in its diplomacy with Iran, out of which came the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Obama wanted to focus on eliminating Tehran’s deadliest arms program first before taking on other issues, including human rights.
Trump, who claimed that he had not slept for twenty-five hours, basked in the attention of the choreographed summit. But he will face tough questions about how to translate a modest statement into the most robust program anywhere in the world to limit nuclear proliferation as the initiative—to be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—moves forward. Meanwhile, key allies left in the dirt at the G-7 summit over the weekend may be wondering what happens next with them, too.
Trump took time at the press conference following the summit to again scold Canada, the closest U.S. ally geographically and its second-largest trading partner. A member of nato, its troops have fought and died alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than twenty-six thousand Canadians fought in the Korean War; more than five hundred were killed. But alliance be damned. The President was infuriated after Prime Minister Trudeau said that Canada would not be “pushed around” by the United States. “He learned that’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” Trump told reporters in Singapore. “He learned.” After the Singapore summit, the temperamental President seems to be on better terms with a North Korean despot than a Canadian democrat.
This post has been updated.
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.