SINGAPORE — When President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands for the first time and sit down one on one here Tuesday, the bonhomie they plan to project will mask the huge gulf between their two countries as diplomats struggle to broker a deal for the rogue state to abandon its nuclear weapons.
The decision by Trump and Kim to begin their Singapore summit without their top advisers or nuclear arms specialists in the room underscores that their real goal is to develop a rapport and stage a global spectacle rather than to ink the technical details of a denuclearization accord.
Both nations have sought to lower expectations for an immediate breakthrough this week in Singapore. Trump has described the summit as the first step in what could be a lengthy process, dangling the possibility of inviting Kim to the United States for a second meeting. And in an indication that Kim is like-minded, North Korean state media described a process of normalizing relations with the United States that would unfold over time.
When Trump meets Kim on Tuesday, the two leaders plan to shake hands and take a ceremonial walk before cameras at the Capella hotel on Singapore’s tropical resort island of Sentosa, according to a senior U.S. official. After they hold an hour or two of private discussions accompanied only by their interpreters, Trump and Kim will be joined by their top advisers for a more traditional bilateral meeting.
Trump and Kim’s representatives labored Monday at the Ritz-Carlton hotel to find agreement on the substance of an eventual nuclear arms deal. The talks were preceded by negotiations the previous month in New York and the Panmunjom truce village in North Korea, in the demilitarized zone with South Korea.
The working-level sessions, including those led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, foundered repeatedly over basic agenda items and an inability to close fundamental gaps in understanding over North Korean denuclearization.
Pompeo told reporters Monday that the day-long talks were going well, but he would not provide details.
“North Korea has previously confirmed to us their willingness to denuclearize, and we are eager to see whether those words prove sincere,” Pompeo said.
Trump hopes to close the gap between the two sides during his personal tête-à-tête with Kim. Hours before the meeting, he said his subordinates had made progress, but he downplayed the importance of staff-level meetings. “Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly,” he tweeted. “But in the end, that doesn’t matter. We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen!”
A key stumbling block in the negotiations has been what comes first. The North Koreans want a firm security guarantee, meaning a promise that the United States will not attack or seek to overthrow Kim. The Americans want a substantive denuclearization pledge.
“It’s not surprising that they’re stuck,” said Victor D. Cha, a former national security official who negotiated with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration.
“They can’t even get past first base on the security assurances because the North Koreans will never define what it actually means to end the hostile policy,” said Cha, whom Trump considered as a possible ambassador to South Korea.
Leading Monday’s talks in Singapore were veteran U.S. diplomat Sung Kim and North Korea’s Choe Son Hui, a vice foreign minister with a long history of dealing with the United States. They were still trying to draft a joint statement outlining the areas of agreement for Trump and Kim Jong Un. Typically such precooked statements, or communiques, are worked out far in advance of summits.
U.S. negotiators have been unable to get the North Koreans to offer a substantive pledge on denuclearization upfront, the chief demand of the Trump administration.
The issue plagued a May 27 meeting in Panmunjom between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The talks began with the North Korean side, led by Choe, saying denuclearization should not be on the table for the Singapore summit — a position rejected by the Americans as a non-starter.
The two sides did not meet afterward for two days, in part because the North Korean delegation did not have the authority to negotiate without additional guidance from Pyongyang. They then reconvened briefly May 30 for a session that made little progress in resolving the impasse.
At the same time, North Korea sent former spy chief Kim Yong Chol to meet with Pompeo in New York. The North Korean was similarly noncommittal about denuclearization — and although Pompeo said they made good progress, their May 31 meeting concluded two hours earlier than expected.
“The [Singapore] meeting is historic, but a real test of success will be whether it actually leads to concrete, steady, prompt progress toward the twin goals of denuclearization and the easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “By definition, that requires a common understanding of what ‘denuclearization’ and ‘peace’ entails and what the major action-for-action steps must be.”
A senior White House official acknowledged the difficulty both sides have had working through the more complicated details of a nuclear deal but said Tuesday’s meeting between Trump and Kim would supersede the staff-level discussions and would drive the outcome.
At the same time, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the two sides made progress on forging a better understanding of the summit. “We have agreed the summit is about transforming US-DPRK relations, establishing enduring peace on the peninsula, and denuclearization,” she said in an emailed statement, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration with expertise in Asia policy, said, “The biggest problem for the negotiators is the lack of trust on both sides.”
“The sticking point, historically, has been that the North Koreans have insisted we make the first move,” Farkas said. “In the past we did, and we got burned. The U.S. expert negotiating team is well aware of this history and will be working overtime to ensure that the North Koreans gain our trust by taking irreversible actions early, if not first.”
Trump called off the Singapore summit last month over what U.S. officials called stonewalling from the North Korean side, only to reinstate the meeting after receiving a personal letter from Kim.
Two U.S. officials familiar with the planning said the North Koreans became more communicative and cooperative after Trump’s June 1 announcement that the meeting was back on — but only to a point. Run-up meetings were thin on technical nuclear discussions, those officials said, and looked almost nothing like the painstaking preparation for arms-control summits of the past, including between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The U.S. delegation in Singapore does not include high-level expertise in nuclear inspection and verification, although Sung Kim is a veteran of the last lengthy nuclear arms-control effort with North Korea, called the six-party talks.
Pompeo insisted Monday that Trump has appropriate help and expertise at hand, saying that the U.S. team includes Trump’s most senior adviser on weapons of mass destruction. He also said U.S. experts from the Pentagon, the Energy Department and intelligence agencies had met for three months “to address technical and logistical issues associated with dismantling North Korea’s weapons programs.”
But that expertise can matter only if the two leaders set the framework Tuesday and see reason enough to follow up.
“We’ll see how far we get. But I am very optimistic that we will have a successful outcome from tomorrow’s meeting between the two leaders,” Pompeo told reporters. “It is the case 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.”
Trump’s enthusiasm for what he called the “unknown territory” of his meeting with Kim is starkly different from his testy discussions with democratic allies at the Group of Seven summit in Canada on Friday and Saturday.
Trump arrived at that meeting late and left early. Although Trump said his relationships with Canada, France, Germany and other traditional allies represented at the meeting are “a 10,” he broke with the group in an angry tweet accusing G-7 members of unfair trading practices.
The G-7 is the kind of traditional, polite, consensus-driven organization that Trump instinctively distrusts. He complained ahead of time that he did not want to sit through lectures from other leaders, and some officials inside the White House mused about sending Vice President Pence in his place.
By contrast, Trump sounded excited about the prospect of one-on-one dealings with Kim and the opportunity to make a bold stroke of his own design.
“This has probably rarely been done. It’s unknown territory, in the truest sense,” Trump said before leaving Canada for Singapore.
“But I really feel confident,” he added. “I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people, and he has that opportunity. And he won’t have that opportunity again. It’s never going to be there again.”
Hudson reported from Washington. David Nakamura in Singapore contributed to this report.