Kim Jong Un couldn’t have scripted his Singapore sojourn any better himself. As he toured the streets on a night-time walkabout and posed for selfies with the Singaporean foreign minister, he was treated more like a rock star than a pariah autocrat.
He may be the leader of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, but Kim was granted a friendly audience with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who had forked out $15 million to keep him accommodated in a luxury hotel and protected by dozens of security officers.
As his motorcade swept through the streets, excited Singaporeans even held up smartphones to capture the moment on social media.
But the real reward was five hours with US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, when the two leaders signed a document that essentially reiterated promises North Korea has already made, extracted no new or concrete concessions to demonstrate Pyongyang was committed to denuclearization, and further, spoke of “security assurances” the dictator had long sought from the United States.
“The only thing that Kim has done is suspend testing of weapons, that’s not giving them away,” said Bruce Bechtol, a professor of political science at Angelo State University who has authored several books on North Korea.
There was certainly nothing in the vague final statement that might result in potential blowback from his cadre of loyalists watching his every move from Pyongyang.
North Korea had declared earlier this year that since the country had satisfactorily achieved all it wanted with regard to its nuclear program, it would suspend its tests. Since then, it has closed down two test sites. Trump announced on Tuesday that Kim had informed him that he would be shutting down a third, one that tested missile engines.
Stunning press conference
But perhaps the most stunning moment of the summit came after Kim had left the summit venue. In a freewheeling press conference lasting more than an hour, Trump was pressed by reporters to elaborate on the security guarantees he could provide to North Korea. In response, Trump pointed to the presence of nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea, something that has long irked not only North Korea, but also its biggest backer: China.
“I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said.
While the US President qualified that a troop withdrawal was “not part of the equation right now,” he made it clear that it could be, in the future.
And to the apparent surprise of South Korea, Trump promised to halt what he called “the war games” – joint military exercises with South Korea – that North Korea has long regarded as a provocation. They were expensive, inappropriate – and “provocative,” he said.
To Korea-watchers, the commitment to suspend these regular training drills would raise questions about the continued presence of US forces in the region.
“If we have a force of 28,500 military personnel that does not conduct training, then we may as well bring them home and this is what I fear from President Trump’s comments that war games cost a lot of money and South Korea does not pay sufficient funds,” said David Maxwell, a retired US Army Special Forces colonel and a fellow at the Institute of Korean American Studies. “A force that does not train is of no value to deterrence and no value to war fighting and does a disservice to those military personnel and our national security.”
Low expectations on human rights
There were few expectations that Trump would confront Kim on the many issues North Korea faces, like its appalling human rights record, the North Koreans who slave in labor camps, the kidnapped foreign nationals from South Korea and Japan, and beyond, its arsenal of medium and short range missiles.
Those have been high on the list of priorities for North Korea’s neighbors including Japan and South Korea. The leaders of both countries spoke to Trump while he was in Singapore before he met with Kim to ensure their fears were firmly in Trump’s mind when he spoke to Kim Jong Un.
As he spoke to reporters, Trump rejected the suggestion that even by meeting with Kim, he’d given the young leader a win.
“It’s not a big deal to meet,” he insisted.
Experts watching the talks disagreed.
“Throughout the tenure of Kim Jong Il [Kim Jong Un’s father], a meeting with a sitting US president was the ultimate sign of the country’s international recognition,” said Catherine Dill, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“Through parsing North Korean state media during Kim Jong Un’s tenure, North Korea plainly seeks the legitimacy that a summit might confer. I think it would only be more priceless for Kim Jong Un if President Trump was coming to North Korea.”
That, by the way, was a possibility Trump told reporters he would consider. He also said he would “absolutely” invite Kim Jong Un to the White House.
On the North Korean laborers, Trump said: “I think I’ve helped them,” adding: “Not much I can do right now, but at some point. I think they are one of the great winners today.”
On human rights, Trump steered the conversation to the matter of the remains of American servicemen missing in action and presumed dead from fighting during the Korean War. About 5,300 of the nearly 7,800 U.S. troops who are still unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war were missing in North Korea. “Human rights were discussed and will be discussed in the future,” Trump said. “What was also discussed in great detail and I must have had countless calls and letters, they want the remains of their sons back. I asked for it today and I got it.”
Little that wasn’t in past statements
The document Trump and Kim signed had little of the detail that past agreements with North Korea had laid out. It echoed statements already agreed to by North Korea when Kim Jong Un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last April.
Tuesday’s communiqué said that North Korea “commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
In contrast, the agreement signed in 2005 between North Korea and the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, committed Pyongyang “to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards.”
The North Koreans have given no indication that they are seeking to abide by international conventions or admit independent experts to verify the extent of their nuclear program.
“The North Koreans have given nothing so far, while the Americans on the other hand have given Kim Jong Un a summit with the US president,” said Andrew O’Neil, the dean of research at the Griffith Business School in Australia.
“Whatever happens from now, Pyongyang comes out of this looking like it’s scored a major victory. It’s an instructive and compelling lesson on how weak states can achieve asymmetrical outcomes if they are prepared to stand tough against materially stronger powers,” he said.
The White House told reporters Tuesday that it had largely agreed to North Korea’s demand for parity in all aspects of the summit, from the number of officials during the bilateral meetings to the number of US and North Korean flags side by side during the arrival ceremony. The images of the six US and six North Korean flags in the background of the Trump-Kim handshake will undoubtedly be used by North Korean propaganda to suggest the US and North Korea are on level footing, another boost to Kim’s legitimacy at home.
The North Koreans have spent decades negotiating with the West, and have studied the Trump White House and were prepared for this meeting, and it showed, said Jean H. Lee, director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy.
“To see President Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands warmly and chatting so easily was both stunning and chilling,” she told CNN. “It’s a powerful moment that augers a change in the tense relationship between these two countries. But it also legitimizes the path Kim took to get here: Building and testing illicit nuclear weapons that have the potential to wreak unimaginable destruction.”
For Kim Jong Un, this momentous day was one for North Korea’s history books that won’t require exaggeration.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report