It was an electrifying sight that captured the imagination of millions of people living on the crisis-weary Korean Peninsula but sent many Americans spinning into paroxysms of anger and cynicism, depending on their politics and knowledge of the rocky history of US relations with North and South Korea.
On Tuesday, President Trump and Kim Jong-un met and shook hands on Singapore’s resort island of Sentosa, curbing decades of deep and bitter hostility between the two countries and possibly opening a new chapter for the United States in East Asia. Afterward, Trump even boasted that he had created a “special bond” with the North Korean dictator.
The unprecedented meeting was the climax of months of intensive negotiations that began in earnest in March, when Kim, through the mediation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, unexpectedly invited Trump to meet and settle their vast differences. As their initial encounter began, Trump declared that times had changed—irrevocably.
“I think we will have a terrific relationship,” Trump predicted as he and Kim took a break after their initial handshake. With considerable understatement, Kim responded. “It was not easy to get here,” he said. “There were obstacles, but we overcame them to be here.” His words might have sounded trite, but they underscored the long and complicated road the North Korean dictator and the US president have come.
Less than a year ago, Kim was busy building a mighty nuclear and missile deterrent and threatening to use it if North Korea’s sovereignty was compromised, while Trump was coldly informing the world that he was ready to unleash “fire and fury” to “totally destroy North Korea” if its threats continued. But by June 12, all that was forgotten.
After 45 minutes of alone time with their interpreters, Trump and Kim gathered their closest advisers and aides for a two-hour discussion about denuclearization and other critical issues. Then, after a friendly luncheon at the swank Capella Hotel, the two men reconvened to sign a document in which the US and the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s formal name) mapped out a four-part plan to make the peace and establish a new relationship.
The “joint statement” included a pledge to build “a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” and reaffirmed the DPRK’s commitment, made in Kim’s April 27 “Panmunjom Declaration” with President Moon, to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In a last-minute addition, the statement also committed each side to restart a project abandoned years ago to jointly recover the remains of US soldiers killed and missing in action during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
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Speaking to reporters later in the day, Trump said the agreement was the first step in a protracted set of negotiations that will begin immediately and be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “as we develop a certain trust” with the DPRK. “We’re going to have a lot of people there, and we’re going to be working with them on a lot of other things,” he said. “But this is complete denuclearization of North Korea, and it will be verified.”
As the proceedings unfolded in Singapore, South Koreans throughout the country stopped what they were doing to watch. “This is the starting point for the two countries, which have been enemies for the past 70 years, to begin reconciliation,” Park Jung-eun, the secretary general of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an influential progressive coalition, told Yonhap News. “This will be a historic day leading to the end of the Korean War.”
President Moon, in a statement released just after the summit ended, praised both leaders for making a commitment to peace. “The June 12 Sentosa Agreement will be recorded as a historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth,” he said. But, in a note of caution, he added that “this is just a beginning and there may be many difficulties ahead, but we will never go back to the past again and never give up on this bold journey.”
Citizen groups in both South Korea and the United States were pleased with the outcome. “The very fact that the top leaders of North Korea and the U.S…sat together in one place and shared dialogue is historic and signals a new era in which peace on the Korean Peninsula is possible,” the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), one of South Korea’s largest trade unions, said in a statement released on Wednesday.
“The summit, and the high-level exchanges that preceded it, provide strong indication that Kim has made a fundamental shift in North Korea’s approach to the world,” Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee told The Nation. AFSC has years of experience in North Korea and in May was granted an exception to the US travel ban in order to send a humanitarian mission to the country.
“One major takeaway from our delegation was that it’s clear there was an internal North Korean decision made to engage with the international community beginning around the Olympics,” Jasper added. “Having recently spoken to ordinary North Koreans, I can see that effective cooperation is inspiring optimism and confidence on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.”
But, to the surprise of many observers, including backers of US-DPRK engagement, the statement did not include a clear timeline for North Korea’s disarmament, nor did it provide details of how the US government would monitor and verify the North’s compliance with its commitment to get rid of its nuclear bombs, weapons facilities, and missile-production sites.
“We cannot help but feel some disappointment and anxiety about the fact that the joint statement does not contain an agreement on concrete measures towards the establishment of a peace regime and the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” the Korean transport union said in its statement.
Suzanne DiMaggio, a negotiating expert at New America, noted on Twitter that the Trump-Kim document “is a bare bones statement of principles. I hope it will serve as a starting point for serious sustained negotiations.” Joseph Yun, who served until March as the Trump administration’s special representative for North Korea, said the agreement was vague. “To me, it was quite disappointing that we really did not put on paper any way that would test the seriousness of Kim Jong Un,” he told The Washington Post.
Leon Sigal, a former State Department official and editorial writer for The New York Times who wrote a history of the 1994 Korean nuclear crisis, disagreed that the agreement let the DPRK off the hook. “I find that kind of ludicrous, considering that both leaders signed it, which hasn’t happened before,” he told The Nation. On the other hand, “we don’t know what details have been worked out,” he added. “Much more will be needed.” And he wondered: “Was there an as-yet-unannounced reciprocal step?”
The apparent lack of specificity was a change from the pledge made by Pompeo the day before the summit. In a press conference at the White House press room at the Marriott, he said that the “ultimate objective” of the US government was the “complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” or CVID for short.
Pompeo also emphasized that the Trump administration would insist on stronger verification systems than in earlier agreements with the DPRK. “The ‘V’ [in CVID] matters,” he said. “We’re going to ensure that we set up a system sufficiently robust that we’re able to verify these outcomes.”
He also said that Trump was ready to provide “unique” security assurances to the DPRK that the United States had never offered before. Exactly what he meant by that was made clear by Trump in his press conference, which he staged shortly after Kim and his entourage departed from the island.
In a stunning announcement that reportedly caught his own aides by surprise, Trump said he would cancel the joint US–South Korean military exercises, which have long been seen by the North as a direct threat to its existence and provided some of the justification for its nuclear program.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should,” he said. “Plus,” he added, “I think it’s very provocative.”
His declaration apparently surprised the Moon government and its military, which hastily put out a statement saying “there still is a need to find out the exact meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks.” On Wednesday, Moon’s Blue House said it would agree with the suspension “as long as serious discussions are being held” between the US and the DPRK “for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishment of peace.”
In any case, the termination of the exercises seemed to go a long way toward convincing the North that Trump has abandoned what Pyongyang calls America’s “hostile policy.” The DPRK itself acknowledged that in an article in its state media that was unprecedented in the detail it offered on the summit.
Noting Trump’s intention to halt the joint military drills, “which the DPRK side regards as provocation,” the statement added that “if the US side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-US relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them.”
But Trump’s ending of the drills, his newfound friendship with Kim, and the perception that the agreement with the North lacked specifics infuriated US politicians and pundits.
Even as the first images flashed across the world of Trump and Kim shaking hands against the unusual background of US and DPRK flags flapping together, social media and op-ed sections of media sites were filled with denunciations of Trump. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate led the attack.
“In his haste to reach an agreement, President Trump elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” charged House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, who last week warned that the Democrats might oppose any agreement that didn’t include the now-famous CVID commitment, said on the Senate floor that Trump had “legitimized a brutal dictator.”
Conservative columnists had a field day. “The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States—each country’s flag represented, a supposedly ‘normal’ diplomatic exchange between two nuclear powers—was enough to turn democracy lovers’ stomachs,” Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Post. Similar analyses were posted all day on Twitter.
Yet even Victor Cha, the veteran hard-liner and former Bush administration official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thought it was a decent agreement. “Despite its many flaws, the Singapore summit represents the start of a diplomatic process that takes us away from the brink of war,” Cha wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday. “North Korea will not be testing any more missiles or nuclear bombs while the diplomacy continues, and the talks led by Mr. Pompeo will hopefully make progress toward stopping the world’s worst runaway nuclear program.”
The contrast between Asian and US perceptions of the summit and the view from the United States was apparent from the moment I arrived in Singapore.
I watched the initial hours of the Trump-Kim encounter from the International Media Center in downtown Singapore, where over 2,500 reporters from around the world had gathered to cover the summit. As the meeting began, everyone in the huge room seemed mesmerized at the unusual site of the tall American president grasping the shoulder of the younger, and much shorter, Kim.
The mood was electric, and the reporters from Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, France, and many other countries seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of peace in Korea. The feeling of camaraderie in covering a historic event was palpable; frequently during my two days there, reporters from one country could be seen interviewing crews from another.
At the nearby White House press center at the Marriott, the atmosphere was far more subdued. There, the established press corps from CNN, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major outlets seemed interested only in how the summit might affect Trump and his political fortunes, and had little interest in the enormous impact of a peace settlement on South Korea.
At one point on Monday afternoon, as the room waited for Pompeo to arrive, I observed a senior Times reporter in deep conversation with his fellow reporters from ABC News and the Post. As they laughed about the next day’s expected encounter between Trump and Kim, the Timesman joked that he was “covering the Neville Chamberlain summit”—a reference to the British diplomat’s disastrous encounter with Adolf Hitler just before World War II that’s considered a symbol of appeasement the world over. To South Korea, however, the peace talks with North Korea are a matter of life and death.
The lack of interest by the US press corps in how the talks would affect South Koreans was underscored during the press conference with Trump. About half the questions from the White House crew focused on the wisdom of a US president meeting with a dictator—as if this had never occurred before—or how the North Korea talks might affect other aspects of US foreign relations.
About halfway through the hour-long event, a Korean reporter started shouting “South Korea! South Korea!” to divert the discussion back to the impact on his country. Eventually, Trump recognized a woman from Arirang News, who brought the issue home by asking if Trump would be speaking soon to President Moon (yes) and if he was optimistic about the prospects of a peace treaty (yes again).
Watching the spectacle from Seoul on CNN, Seth Mountain, an American teacher and musician, told me that he and his Korean friends found the press behavior insulting. “Nearly every question presupposes a US right to dominate Korea and decide its fate,” he told me in a Facebook message. Media critic Adam Johnson, a sometime contributor to The Nation, had a similar reaction after watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC rip into Trump’s cancellation of the US–South Korean war games.
“Complete, categorical erasure of South Koreans and South Korean left,” he tweeted. “The easiest, cheapest NatSec-flattering banality. Totally partisan myopia.” That about summarizes the US coverage of what may turn out to be the most important diplomatic achievement of the Trump years.
Despite some concerns about the lack of specificity in the agreement, Christine Ahn, the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, was optimistic about the principles laid out in the US–North Korean document.
“The compass has been set, now it is time to ensure that these principles are followed through with concrete action, and this is where it is crucial for civil society, especially women’s groups, [to] step in,” she said. Clearly, both the Trump administration and the peace movement have their work cut out for them.
But as Trump’s plane from Singapore was landing in Washington on Wednesday morning, the president was already declaring victory. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” he tweeted from Air Force One. “Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!” For this president, apparently there is no looking back.