SINGAPORE — President Trump concluded a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un here Tuesday by sketching a path to prosperity for the isolated nation. But it remained highly uncertain whether the young dictator would embrace the offer by agreeing to eliminate his nuclear arsenal.
Later, the two sat next to each other to sign a joint declaration pledging to work toward peace and to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
“We’re ready to write a new chapter between our nations,” Trump said at a news conference, calling his meeting with Kim “honest, direct and productive.”
“The past does not have to define the future,” he added. “Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. As history has proved over and over, adversaries can become friends.”
Yet despite the bonhomie, the agreement, just over a page long, was perhaps most notable for its lack of details. Kim made no specific commitment to relinquish his nuclear arms and ballistic missiles and gave no timeline for which he would do so. Rather, he committed solely to abiding by a mostly symbolic agreement he had made during a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April.
Other highly sensitive matters, including the North’s brutal human rights abuses and the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, were not addressed. Trump said he would keep the sanctions in place until the North demonstrated steps toward disarmament.
The scene in Singapore as President Trump and Kim Jong Un met
Asked why his negotiating team had not locked down specific promises from Pyongyang, Trump replied: “Because there’s no time. I’m here one day . . . But the process is now going to take place.”
Trump said that aides would begin additional talks soon and that he would potentially invite Kim to the White House and be open to visiting Pyongyang “at the appropriate time.” Yet he also acknowledged that disarmament would not come quickly.
“It does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization. It takes a long time,” Trump said. “Scientifically, you have to wait certain periods of time, and a lot of things happen. But despite that, once you start the process, it means it’s pretty much over. Can’t use them, that’s the good news. That’s going to start very soon.”
The result was a diplomatic breakthrough after decades of hostility, but no guarantee that North Korea will follow through. Trump grounded his optimism in his confidence that he can read an adversary and that his gamble of attempting to create a rapport with an autocrat would pay off.
Trump said Kim agreed to shutter a missile engine testing site and to allow the return of the remains of American service members lost in North Korea during the Korean War more than 60 years ago.
Kim, in turn, got at least one major benefit upfront. Trump announced that he will order an end to regular “war games” that the United States conducts with ally South Korea, a reference to annual joint military exercises that are an irritant to North Korea.
Trump called the exercises “very provocative” and “inappropriate” in light of the optimistic opening he sees with North Korea. Ending the exercises also would save money, he said.
The United States has conducted such exercises for decades as a symbol of unity with Seoul and previously rejected North Korean complaints as illegitimate. Ending them would be a significant political benefit for Kim — and for China, which has long supported such an outcome — but Trump insisted that he did not give up leverage.
“I think the meeting was every bit as good for the United States as it was for North Korea,” he said.
Although Trump had spent Monday calling Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consolidate support, Moon’s government seemed blindsided by Trump’s unilateral decision to end the joint military exercises. A spokesman for Moon said the government needed more information “to understand” Trump’s intentions.
At the U.S. military command in South Korea, officials also reacted with uncertainty. Col. Jennifer Lovett, a spokeswoman, said the command “has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises.”
Those exercises include the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills scheduled for August.
“We will continue with our current military posture” until further notice, she said.
The outcome came after an extraordinary two days in which Trump and Kim arrived in this Southeast Asian city-state in a strikingly lopsided power dynamic — Trump, 71, the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful nation, and Kim, 34, the ruler of the world’s most isolated and repressive country.
Yet it was Kim who stole the show in the hours before the summit, taking a surprise nighttime tour of Singapore’s gleaming waterfront, a glass and steel testament to wealth and prosperity that offered a glimpse of what is possible if he chooses to open to the world.
Cheered on by crowds of onlookers, Kim toured the Marina Bay Sands, a three-tower complex with a replica of a cruise ship spanning the 57th floor, strolled along the architecturally stunning Jubilee Bridge and took a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister.
By the time he arrived at the Capella the following morning, Kim had begun to transform his image, and pictures of his tour were plastered on the news pages of his state-run media in North Korea. As Trump and Kim approached each other from opposite wings of a makeshift stage, complete with a red carpet and a row of alternating American and North Korean flags, Kim had established himself as an equal, for one day at least, to the most powerful leader on Earth.
Trump bristled when asked whether he had offered Kim’s brutal regime, which has sent as many as 100,000 North Koreans to hard-labor camps, validation on the world stage.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make the world a safer place,” the president responded. “If I have to say I’m sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim and that’s going to get us to save 30 million lives, could be more than that, I’m willing to sit on the stage.”
But Trump faced skepticism from Democrats and some Republicans, as well as former U.S. officials who warned of past empty pledges from North Korea.
“U.S. gives up one of our biggest negotiating chips — military exercises,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter. “North Korea ends up BACKTRACKING on previous promises on denuclearization.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) cautioned that the summit “must be followed by multiple meetings to test North Korea’s promises of denuclearization, which they have made in the past and then repeatedly violated.”
Kim appeared alternately amused and implacable, speaking through an interpreter and flanked by aides, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as well as Foreign Affairs Minister Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party.
In a sign that Kim remains paranoid about his safety, a North Korean official inspected the pen that was placed in front of Kim to sign the joint declaration with Trump, rubbing it with a gloved hand. When his sister placed the document in front of him, however, she also handed him a different pen to use — and took it back when Kim was done.
“We overcame all kinds of skepticism and speculations about this summit,” Kim said, “and I believe that this is a good prelude for peace.”
“We will solve it,” Trump replied. “We will be successful.”
Trump came away clearly buoyed by the interactions with the leader of a brutal regime whom the president referred to derisively last year as “Little Rocket Man.”
The president opened his news conference by playing, on a pair of movie theater-size screens, a dramatic video with voiceovers in Korean and English. The video offered Kim a stark choice between military conflict on the Korean Peninsula and the kind of robust economic development that has turned neighboring South Korea into a wealthy nation.
“Two leaders, one destiny,” the narrator proclaims, over images of Trump and Kim, “a story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance that may never be repeated. What will he choose?”
It was a choice that Trump, who has elevated North Korea to his top foreign policy priority, hoped Kim would consider an easy one, although he showed a moment of self-doubt.
“I think he’s going to do these things,” Trump said. “I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was.’ ”
He paused for a moment, then added: “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
Carol Morello in Washington and Brian Murphy in Seoul contributed to this report.