Take President Trump at his word and the U.S. and North Korea reached two agreements in Singapore on Tuesday. One on paper, and one in his mind.
SINGAPORE — As President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sat down to sign a joint statement wrapping diplomatic talks in Singapore on Tuesday, hundreds of reporters assigned to cover the summit were scattered between chartered busses and stuck in traffic en route to a Trump press conference scheduled for some two hours later.
Packed in tightly, with television cameras and tripods on laps, millionaire network anchors, Pulitzer-winning correspondents and freshmen reporters alike huddled around smartphones to discern fuzzy audio beamed out of the Trump-Kim signing ceremony, and confusion reigned.
A full hour after Trump and Kim inked their names on a two-page agreement, Kim was wheels-up bound for Pyongyang but the White House had yet to circulate the agreement to the press. It took three hours for White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders to finally circulate the text of the Trump-Kim “communiqué,” as such documents are known.
By then, Trump had nearly wrapped up a free-wheeling press conference in which he sketched out a very different agreement than the deal bearing his signature.
Once Trump, too, departed Singapore’s poshy Capella Hotel and reporters were spat out on a manicured lawn where just hours earlier Kim and Trump had strolled, it was easy to feel that two agreements had been signed on Tuesday: one on paper, and one in Trump’s head.
A joint statement signed by Trump and Kim contains just four elements: two expressing vague hope for improved relations and Korean peace, a third on recovering the remains of American POW from the Korean War, and a fourth, ostensibly the reason for talks in the first place, on nuclear weapons.
“Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement in which he reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
There was but one line in Tuesday’s agreement addressing nukes, and all it did was endorse pledges made by the leaders of North and South Korea at a DMZ summit in April. That deal was vague and purposely designed to be superseded by more detailed language on North Korea’s nuclear programs expected to emerge out of Singapore.
But if greater clarity on that denuclearization process exists now, it hasn’t been put on paper.
Neither has a bombshell concession offered up by Trump during his press conference to end joint military exercises with South Korea — drills the Pentagon has long maintained are crucial to U.S. national security:
“I call them war games. They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible. South Korea contribute, but not 100 percent, which is a subject that we have to talk to them about also.”
That wasn’t the only matter Trump claimed to have hashed out with Kim outside their formal agreement. He claimed Kim had pledged to end nuclear and missile tests and destroy a key missile development site, but those offers — described by Trump as “throw-ins at the end” — came too late in the day to write down.
Former U.N. Ambassador and occasional North Korean interlocutor Bill Richardson said Kim’s decision to float support for certain policies, only to balk at formalizing those concessions, is a frequent move North Korean negotiators use to draw out the length of diplomatic talks.
“They were sending a message that this is going to take a protracted negotiation,” Richardson said of Kim’s purported verbal support for policies that he wouldn’t endorse on paper.
With those North Korean promises excluded from Tuesday’s deal, Richardson said he was left “a bit disappointed in the lack of details — of timelines and accountability and verification — on what are the most important parts of this summit.”
Thomas Countryman, former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, said those “throw-in” concessions from Kim and Trump also give him pause.
“The history of two leaders not known for keeping promises is something that will hang over those negotiations,” he said. “I think both leaders have a reason to be cautious about verbal commitments made by the other side.”
All of that begs the question: Are the U.S. and North Korea actually close to historic breakthroughs on a range of fronts and just holding back to hash out their wording? Or after weeks of high-level talks are the two sides no closer to a nuclear deal than they’ve been all along?
Either way, Trump made it clear on Tuesday that picking up the pieces of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy after Singapore isn’t his job any longer. Instead, it’s the unenviable task facing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Mike and our team has to get to work and get it completed because otherwise we have done a good job. If you don’t get the ball over the goal line, it doesn’t mean enough.
And with that, Trump walked off stage and was whisked to the airport for his return trip to Washington.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 12, 2018
Pompeo, meanwhile, is bound for South Korea then China, moves Richardson said are key to continuing the diplomatic process touched off in Singapore. But he insisted Trump should delegate only so much responsibility to Pompeo for keeping talks alive.
“President Trump has to be engaged,” he said. “Not directly, but he has to direct [Pompeo]. He can’t just say goodbye and talk a walk.”