The agreement signed in Singapore on Tuesday by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not include any specific commitments on denuclearization or mention of sanctions relief. The two leaders did not, as Trump had suggested they might, negotiate a formal end to the 1950–53 Korean War. However, both probably more or less got what they wanted out of the meeting: a dramatic and historic photo-op.
The joint statement notably did not feature the phrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization” (or “dismantlement”), which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously suggested was nonnegotiable. Instead, Kim vaguely committed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—which he had already committed to at his meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April. The agreement does not include any specific steps or benchmarks for that process, though according to Trump, Kim did agree to destroy a missile engine–testing site “after the agreement was signed.”
While sanctions will remain in place for now, Kim did extract one major concession from Trump. “We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said, referring to the joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises that North Korea has long objected to. “Unless and until we see the future negotiations not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.” [Update, June 12, 2018, 9 a.m.: The South Koreans were apparently unaware of this concession beforehand. At this point, that shouldn’t be surprising.]
Summing up the reactions of most North Korea watchers this morning, Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group, wrote, “We expected it would be a flop, but it’s floppier than anything we expected. The declaration is pretty much meaningless. The Americans could have extracted serious concessions, but it was not done. The North Koreans will be emboldened and the U.S. got nothing.”
Asked why this was different from the numerous agreements North Korea has signed in the past—many of which, it should be noted, included far more specifics than this one—Trump said at a press conference following the meeting that the difference was himself: “I don’t believe [the North Koreans] have ever had the confidence in a president they have right now for getting things done and ability to get things done.”
He said he was not worried that North Korea would abandon the denuclearization process, stating, “Once you start the process it means it’s pretty much over. ” As evidence for this assertion, he referred to conversations he had had with an uncle who was a professor at MIT.
Trump also said that he hoped to travel to Pyongyang to meet with Kim “at the appropriate time” and would also like to invite the North Korean leader to the White House.
Trump said he did raise the issue of human rights with Kim, leader of one of the world’s most oppressive and brutal regimes, and that he believes Kim is going to “do things about it.” In response to a reporter’s question mentioning Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died shortly after being released from North Korean custody last year, Trump said that he “did not die in vain,” because after his death, “a lot of people started to focus on what was going on, including North Korea.” He described the thousands of people held in North Korea’s network of gulags as “one of the great winners today.”
In one of the stranger moments of the press conference, Trump lapsed back into real estate–developer mode, saying of North Korea, “They have great beaches. You see that whenever they are exploding the cannons in the ocean. I said, ‘Look at that view. That would make a great condo.’ I said instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world. Think of it from the real estate perspective.”
After the meeting, Trump said, “I have told people, I did not want to build up people’s hopes. I told people, I thought this would be a successful meeting if we got along.” This is not particularly convincing given that he had at various points in the past few months promised full denuclearization, an end to the war, and mused about receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
In a tweet prior to sitting down with Kim, Trump had dismissed the “haters & losers” who said the meeting itself was a victory for the North Koreans. But for Kim, a day that included a handshake with the president of the United States in front of side-by-side U.S. and North Korean flags, a commitment to end the joint military exercises, and at least the possibility of a White House invitation, without any notable North Korean concessions, was undoubtedly a victory.
The warmth with which Trump greeted Kim—he declared himself “honored” to be in the presence of the Stalinist dictator of a nuclear-armed pariah state—was a stark contrast to his frosty interactions with the leaders of the G-7 and his Twitter sniping with the prime minister of Canada earlier in the weekend. It’s also hard to square Trump’s faith in North Korea’s vague commitments today with his years of lambasting Barack Obama’s administration for a far more specific and verifiable agreement with Iran.
Still, given how close Trump and Kim appeared to launching a devastating war just a few months ago, the bizarre sight of them chatting amiably and pledging to continue the dialogue is far better than the alternative.