SINGAPORE — President Trump shook his hand for 13 long seconds, patted him on the back and led him down a rich red carpet. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be considered the world’s greatest human rights abuser and a totalitarian collector of nuclear weapons, but as they met for the first time here Tuesday, Trump declared himself honored.
“We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt,” the U.S. president said with a smile, settling into an armchair opposite the North Korean leader. American and North Korean flags framed the improbable detente between two men who at the start of the year were hurling insults at one another and appeared on the brink of nuclear war.
The extraordinary tableau was a stark contrast to what had transpired three days earlier and half a world away in Canada, where an embittered Trump sat sternly, his arms crossed and his face impassive, as the leaders of America’s oldest Western allies pleaded with him not to rupture the established world order with his retaliatory trade policies.
For Trump, the Group of Seven summit in Quebec was an irritating obligation, but his tête-à-tête with Kim here was a bid for history.
The lush Capella hotel on the resort island of Sentosa may be the most important stage thus far of Trump’s presidency. By personally negotiating terms for North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons with the rogue country’s reclusive leader — something previous American presidents did not do — Trump put his brand of transactional, mano-a-mano diplomacy to a test.
Distrustful of tradition and determined to reimagine America’s alliances, Trump approached North Korean talks as he had real estate deals when he was a Manhattan developer. He turned a blind eye to differences of principle and history — refusing to directly confront the reality that Kim oversees a vast police state, starves his citizens and assassinates his rivals — in the interest of completing a transaction.
Rather than approach Kim as a pariah, Trump showered him with respect and even flattery, enthused to shake hands with a monstrous figure in part, perhaps, because his monstrosity is his source of power.
By simply jetting here for the summit, Trump effectively threw a coming-out party for Kim and afforded his rogue state the international prestige it has long sought. Crowds of people on the streets of Singapore cheered Kim like a visiting celebrity, and images of his meeting with Trump were broadcast around the world.
Kim, beaming and visibly proud of his audience with the president, told Trump through an interpreter, “Old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles in our way forward, but we overcame all of them and we are here today.”
Trump, who turns 72 on Thursday, greeted Kim, 34, with the same firm handshake and familiar clasp of the arm, as well as the take-charge guiding hand on the back, with which he routinely welcomes foreign counterparts to the Oval Office.
The setting on Sentosa was carefully staged to put both leaders on equal footing, projecting a jarring normalcy to the spectacle of a ruthless and reclusive authoritarian strolling at ease in a tropical resort with the leader of the free world. As they stood together on a portico exchanging pleasantries, an interpreter speaking for Kim was overheard telling Trump that “many people will think of this as a form of fantasy . . . a science fiction movie.”
Trump began the historic day on a sour note, tweeting in grievance before dawn here about “haters & losers” who question his accomplishment in getting this far.
“We have our hostages, testing, research and all missle launches have stoped,” Trump wrote at 6:04 a.m., referring to the return of three Americans held captive in North Korea and other developments seen as goodwill gestures by Kim ahead of the summit. “[T]hese pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say! We will be fine!”
The president’s anger reflects his view that the old models of diplomacy have failed. He sees no better example than the more than two decades of fruitless U.S. efforts to engage North Korea and strike a deal that would avert a nuclear crisis, only to see Kim grow his arsenal.
Critics, including some Republicans, have said Trump gave away important leverage by agreeing to meet Kim as an equal, without an explicit agreement about nuclear weapons eradication beforehand. Trump dismisses that as old thinking and an unwillingness to give him credit.
North Korea pressed ahead with nuclear development despite two previous agreements involving U.S. presidents, and on Trump’s watch has appeared to reach the ability of hitting the mainland United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
With that leverage, Kim was ready to consider a bargain.
In Kim, Trump sees a singular leader — and one with whom he can broker an accord. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on the eve of the summit, “In each of those two countries, there are only two people that can make decisions of this magnitude, and those two people are going to be sitting in a room together.”
The bonhomie they projected Tuesday masked the gulf that had existed between the United States and North Korea as diplomats struggled in recent weeks to agree to a definition of denuclearization and settle technical details of how and when it can be achieved and verified.
“Trump is focused on the optics of the summit, not the substance,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
“The summit is shaping up to be a historic meeting with a mediocre outcome. Trump will try to sell a vague commitment to denuclearization as a success,” Davenport added, but the test will be in what follows from the two-way summitry.
The direct, leader-to-leader approach won an endorsement from Joel Wit, a former senior State Department official who has negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration.
“In this case, the top down approach is the right way to go — particularly in dealing with a country like North Korea, where Kim Jong Un’s word is law — as long as the summit sets clear objectives, such as denuclearization, and established talks between the two countries to work out the details,” Wit said.
Trump’s willingness to meet Kim as an equal recalls his “respect” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite Putin’s suppression of political opposition, jailing of journalists and his government’s alleged poisoning of a former spy on British soil.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News last year, before the British attack. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Just five months ago, Trump used his biggest domestic stage, the annual State of the Union address, to denounce Kim’s human rights abuses. Trump invited as his guests the parents of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was arrested during a study abroad tour in North Korea, charged with crimes against the state and imprisoned at a labor camp. He was badly injured and died just days after his return to the United States in 2017.
In the speech’s emotional high point, Trump recognized Warmbier’s parents in the gallery of the House chamber and said, “You are wonderful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all.”
In a departure from his warnings last year of “fire and fury” — and from their squabbles over the size of their respective nuclear buttons — Trump has warmed to Kim in recent months, praising him as “honorable” and dangling a possible invitation to visit the United States.
Trump was determined to stage a global spectacle in Singapore, expressing enthusiasm in the run-up to his trip here for what he called the “unknown territory” of his meeting with Kim, even if inking a denuclearization accord takes additional meetings and further negotiations.
By contrast, Trump complained to advisers about having to make the trip to Canada for last week’s G-7 summit — the kind of traditional, polite, consensus-driven gathering that Trump instinctively distrusts.
The president arrived at that meeting late and left early. And although he rated his relationships with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany and other traditional allies represented at the meeting “a 10,” he broke with them in a petulant Twitter tirade aboard Air Force One en route from Quebec to Singapore. He referred to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by his first name and called him “dishonest” and “weak” because of a dispute over dairy imports.
By contrast, Trump sounded giddy at the prospect of one-on-one dealings with Kim. When they finally met Tuesday in Singapore, Trump afforded him the respect he denied Trudeau.
“Mr. Chairman,” Trump said as he addressed Kim from across a flower-lined wooden table, “it’s a great honor to be with you and I know that we will have tremendous success together.”
John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.