SEOUL — North Korea’s state-run media are framing the agreements reached at the Singapore summit as a “step-by-step” process intended to bring U.S. rewards in exchange for gradual moves by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program.
An account Wednesday in the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper could signal the first rift with President Trump over the perceived way forward with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The extensive and — by North Korean standards — speedy coverage also suggested an attempt to set the post-summit narrative of the vaguely worded declaration signed by Kim and Trump.
After Tuesday’s talks, Trump said no sanctions would be lifted until the rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities reached “a certain point.” Trump gave no further details, but previous statements demanded that North Korea effectively eliminate its nuclear weapons program before any U.S. concessions can be considered.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said sanctions would remain in place until “CVID” — referring to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. “The V matters,” he told reporters in Singapore.
The Rodong Sinmun report gave no further interpretation of what it called a “step-by-step” process on the nuclear issue and improved relations or what reciprocal actions the North expected from Washington along the way. A separate report by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) noted the step-by-step path in the context of denuclearization on the entire “Korean Peninsula,” which has in the past been shorthand for the North’s demand for the United States to take down its nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and Japan.
But one stunning step already taken by Trump — the suspension of some U.S.-South Korean military drills — was characterized by state-run media as a major victory in hand for Kim.
The KCNA reported that Kim told Trump “that it is urgent to make bold decision on halting irritating and hostile military actions against each other.”
“Expressing his understanding of it,” the news agency said, “Trump expressed his intention to halt the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.” The KCNA report called the military drills a “provocation” — the same word used by Trump in Singapore to describe the decision.
The overall message appeared mostly aimed at North Koreans, portraying Kim as setting the terms of the post-summit framework and at the helm of further policy shifts away from emphasis on the nuclear arsenal — which Kim long called the nation’s “treasured sword.”
“Kim Jong Un is showing that he is not succumbing to external pressure but carrying out denuclearization based on his own plan and vision,” said Lee Jong-seok, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, a government-affiliated think tank.
It is imperative for the Kim regime to show that any nuclear rollbacks were voluntary and not the subject of demands and threats from the United States, he noted.
“Under this scenario, a denuclearized North Korea, because it wasn’t a result of external pressure, will still hold legitimacy and influence in the diplomatic arena,” Lee said.
The report added that more meetings could come on their respective home turf. KCNA said Kim and Trump accepted mutual invitations for visits to North Korea and the United States. Kim asked Trump to travel to Pyongyang “at a convenient time,” the news agency said.
To no one’s surprise, the North’s state-directed coverage fawned over what it described as Kim’s statesmanship and diplomatic aplomb, meeting Trump as an equal on the world stage.
The KCNA report noted Kim’s “proactive peace-loving measures” and the “will of the top leaders of the two countries to put an end to the extreme hostile relations” that date back to the Korean War nearly 70 years ago.
“There was a comprehensive and in-depth discussion over the issues of establishing new DPRK-U.S. relations and building a permanent and durable peace mechanism at the talks,” the KCNA report added, using the initials for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
There was even a touch of warmth over the side-by-side stroll by Trump and Kim on the grounds of the hotel used for the summit venue.
“After the luncheon, the top leaders had a walk, deepening friendly feelings,” the KCNA reported, calling the summit an “epoch-making meeting.”
Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted a greeting to the autocrat he once mocked as “Little Rocket Man”: “Thank you to Chairman Kim, our day together was historic!”
Rodong Sinmun devoted its entire front page to the summit.
“Meeting of the century that pioneers new history in relations with United States,” a banner headline said.
The newspaper ran photos showing the handshake between Kim and Trump and the two leaders standing in front of a row of U.S. and North Korean flags. It also had two inside pages chronicling the events, including the full declaration signed after the summit.
The newspaper's coverage was largely framed around the premise that it was Trump who was most eager for the summit.
“Kim said he was pleased to meet with President Trump and his team from the United States and praised President Trump’s will and aspiration to overcome the hostile past between the two countries, and to find realistic solutions to problems through communication and cooperation,” part of the story said.
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korean affairs expert at Troy University in Alabama, said the summit gave Kim's regime a “huge windfall of propaganda.”
“They know very well how to use it,” he said.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Washington contributed to this report.