After months of acrimony and a few weeks of weird uncertainty, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a denuclearization agreement on Tuesday that essentially did nothing more but affirm the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration signed by North and South Korea in April.
As with the Panmunjom Declaration, there’s nothing in the agreement — a joint letter, really — that actually defines any of the goals or how they will be achieved, just a commitment, on both sides, to “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
There was no mention of sanctions, long-range missiles, a peace treaty, or a time frame in what the president called a “pretty comprehensive” agreement that is less than one and a half pages long.
However, in a press conference on Tuesday, President Trump mentioned that North Korea had agreed to total denuclearization and that the sanctions would remain in place.
Trump said he couldn’t be sure that Kim would follow through, and that he might be wrong to trust him.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse,” he said.
Trump also mentioned a number of other things he had agreed upon with Kim that are not in the signed document, including the closure of a missile testing site and the end to South Korea and U.S. military exercises, so it’s unclear how, exactly, they will be implemented.
Apparently, Seoul was caught off guard by the promise to cease the joint military drills, which Trump called “provocative” and “a waste of money.” Shortly after the press conference, South Korea’s Blue House issued a statement saying, “At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.”
Trump praised Kim, who had already left, as a “very smart” and “talented” man who “wants to do things” on improving North Korea’s human rights issues, which Trump said was brought up briefly at the summit.
He also said he discussed “real estate and beachside hotel opportunities.”
The fist media question was on how the president could praise Kim, a man with such a brutal reputation. In reply, Trump simply repeated his praise for Kim, who the president marveled had started leading North Korea at 26 yeas of age and “ran it tough.”
President Trump then mentioned Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was detained and tortured by North Korea (even though Pyongyang denied mistreating him) and died shortly after being released last year, saying that Warmbier “did not die in vain. He had a lot to do with this.”
The president was largely unable to answer questions asking for the details of the agreement (the verification process, for instance) and mostly struck a defensive tone when asked what concessions the United States actually got from North Korea.
Trump also gave shoutouts to other leaders in the region: South Korean President Moon Jae-in (“he’s working hard”), Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (“a good man”), and China’s President Xi-Jinping (“a great leader”).
This summit is certainly seen as a win for both leaders — Kim gave no new ground while, like President Trump, getting the benefit of getting a global photo opportunity. Trump also promised to invite Kim, a man he only months ago called “little rocket man,” to the White House.
This agreement was signed after half a day’s worth of meetings which kicked off with a conversation between Trump and Kim, with only their interpreters present. There were no aides, and certainly no reporters. And for President Trump, if we are to take him at his own word, did little preparation to meet with the man who was raised for to take over leadership of the country from his father.
After around 40 minutes of talks, the two men emerged, smiling and shaking hands for photos that will no doubt launch a million memes.
There are still many questions remaining. Would North Korea give up all of its nuclear weapons? How about its long and short-range ballistic weapons? Would it be gradual? Would Pyongyang expect to get trade and sanctions relief at several points during the process, before whatever is agreed upon is fully delivered? Do they even agree on what full denucleariztion is? What kind of security guarantees can the United States give North Korea?
What we do know is that Pyongyang gained international legitimacy with this summit. Also a win for Kim was President Trump’s radical lowering of expectations for what’s to come out of these talks. Kim spoke far less than Trump, noting that the countries had overcome major obstacles to be there.
At times, he was silent, just watching Trump’s interaction with the press, such as the moments before the delegations were about to sit to lunch, when the president turned to the press and said, “Take a good picture, everybody, so we look nice and handsome and thin.” Kim merely looked at the cameras and blinked.
In recent days, the president’s bravado on the deliverables out of the summit has been replaced by a more humble assessment of what can be achieved — in April he boasted Kim had “given up” everything without even being asked. By last week, the summit had been downgraded to a meet-and-greet.