An ebullient President Donald Trump flew home Tuesday with what he called a “very, very comprehensive” agreement with North Korea, even as lawmakers, analysts and allies congratulated the effort but questioned the substance of what had been achieved.
The brief document signed by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provided virtually no detail beyond a stated commitment to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula, a promise that Pyongyang has made and ignored many times in the past.
At a news conference in Singapore after nearly five hours of talks there with Kim, Trump said he “knows for a fact” that North Korea means it this time and that Kim “wants to do the right thing.” The work of putting meat on the bare bones of the agreement will begin quickly, he said, and “once you start the process, it means it's pretty much over.”
Talks are to be led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, according to the agreement, a “relevant, high-level” North Korean official. But no specifics of a future path were outlined. There was no mention of a declaration of North Korea's nuclear assets, which normally precedes any arms control negotiation, or of timelines or deadlines.
“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,” said Joseph Yun, who until March served as the administration's special representative for North Korea policy. “We have to suspend our judgment” until something else happens, he said, but “there is nothing from the meeting to say we've achieved anything.”
No sanctions will be lifted until denuclearization reaches “a certain point,” Trump said without elaboration. “They'll come off when we know we're down the road,” he said.
North Korea's tightly controlled media hailed the “meeting of the century,” as the official state newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, put it, but framed the coverage around the premise that it was Trump who was most eager for the summit. North Korea's official KCNA news agency characterized Trump as conceding to Kim's demands to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
There was some discussion of human rights during the meetings – which included a one-on-one between Trump and Kim, an expanded session with senior staff on both sides, and a lunch – Trump said, but they focused primarily on nuclear issues. Neither North Korea's brutal treatment of its own citizens, nor its substantial cyberwar capabilities, nor Japan's request for a tough line on the abduction of its citizens, was mentioned in their joint statement.
Trump did secure Kim's promise, stated in the written agreement, to restart the return of U.S. military remains from the Korean War. That process, begun in the 1990s, was suspended in 2005 as tensions rose between the two countries.
Unlike decades of previous arms agreements, which usually start with bottom-up negotiations and final deals sealed by leaders, this one began at the top. Trump made clear that his presence, and his self-described dealmaking skills – along with a slick, U.S.-made video depicting Trump and Kim as key to saving the world – were part of the negotiation itself.
By forming what he called “a very special bond” with Kim, he said, he would be able to achieve a success that had eluded several presidents before him.
From the outside, against the spectacular tropical background of the Singapore city-state, all was bonhomie and preset photo opportunities showing the 71-year-old U.S. president, and the 34-year-old leader of the world's most isolated and repressive nation, smiling and chatting.
Some experts questioned, however, what happened during the talks themselves, and whether failure to reach agreement on vital issues during pre-summit talks led by Pompeo left the president with little leverage to press Kim.
“My sense is that we wanted a lot more going into this meeting in terms of specificity,” including a declaration of nuclear assets and “some reference to a timeline,” said Victor Cha, director for Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We got none of those things. If the bar for success in this summit is war or peace, it's a pretty low bar. 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.”
But while the agreement refers to “a lasting and stable peace regime,” it does not mention a possible official end to the Korean War or normalization of relations.
In terms of what must come next to demonstrate Pyongyang's seriousness, “the real test will be when Pompeo has to follow up on all this,” said Michael Green, who served as Asia director for President George W. Bush's National Security Council during the last extensive round of North Korea talks.