Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un hailed their historic summit on Tuesday as a breakthrough in relations between Cold War foes, but the agreement they produced was short on details about the key issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
The extraordinary encounter saw the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy shake hands with the third generation scion of a ruling dynasty, standing as equals in front of their nations’ flags.
Kim agreed to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a stock phrase favored by Pyongyang that fell short of long-standing U.S. demands for North Korea to give up its atomic arsenal.
After a day filled with smiles and compliments in the sumptuous setting of a luxury Singapore hotel that was watched around the world, the U.S. “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea.
Ahead of the meeting, critics expressed concerns that it risked being more about media headlines than substantive progress. Asked about denuclearization—the crux of the summit—Trump said, “we’re starting that process,” adding that it would begin “very, very quickly.”
But the text of the two men’s agreement made no mention of previous U.S. demands for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization”—jargon for scrapping weapons and committing to inspections.
Melissa Hanham of the U.S.-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies said on Twitter that North Korea had “already promised to do this many times,” adding the two sides “still don’t agree on what ‘denuclearization’ means.”
In neutral Singapore, the leaders, who had previously hurled insults like “mentally deranged” and “little rocket man,” showered compliments on each other.
Trump said he had formed a “special bond” with Kim, whose regime has been accused of multiple human rights abuse and who is suspected of ordering the assassination of his brother at a Malaysian airport last year. “We’ll meet again,” Trump said after a signing ceremony, standing with Kim on the verandah where they first met. “We will meet many times.”
Trump said he “absolutely” would be willing to invite Kim to the White House.
For his part, Kim said the two Cold War foes had vowed to “leave the past behind,” pledging “the world will see a major change.”
The extraordinary summit—unthinkable only months ago—comes after Washington and Pyongyang appeared on the verge of conflict late last year as the leaders slung personal insults and Kim conducted nuclear and missile tests.
At the start of the day, the pair shared warm words and shook hands for several seconds, Trump reaching out to touch the North Korean leader on his right shoulder. As they sat down for their tete-a-tete, the U.S. leader—who had said he would know “within the first minute” if a deal would be possible—predicted a “terrific relationship” with Kim.
In Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in watched live on television, telling his ministers, he “could hardly sleep last night.”
After huddling for around 40 minutes, Trump and Kim were joined by senior advisers before breaking for lunch, where prawn cocktail, short-rib confit, soy-braised cod, and vanilla ice cream were among the options. The imagery for the high-stakes meeting was undoubtedly positive and Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Dongguk University in Seoul said: “The atmosphere of the summit looks very good.”
“It will be hard for this meeting to agree on specific deals but it carries considerable significance as a starting point,” he said.
Critics said the mere fact of the meeting meant Trump was legitimizing Kim, who critics say runs a police state where human rights are routinely trampled. “It’s a huge win for Kim Jong-Un, who now—if nothing else—has the prestige and propaganda coup of meeting one-on-one with the president, while armed with a nuclear deterrent,” said Michael Kovrig, Crisis Group Senior Adviser for North East Asia.
The warm words and positive optics seemed a different era from when Trump was threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang and Kim attacked Trump as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” as he fired off a series of provocative weapons tests.
The Singapore summit is a potentially legacy-defining meeting for both men—comparable to president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, or Ronald Reagan’s 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. But many agreements have been made in the past with North Korea that have later fallen apart.