Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have begun a summit in Singapore with a handshake and a prediction from the US president that the meeting would be a “tremendous success” and that the two men were going to have a “terrific relationship”.
Sitting alongside Trump, Kim replied through an interpreter: “Well, it was not easy to get here. The past has placed many obstacles in our way but we overcame all of them and we are here today.”
Just a few months since both leaders had been exchanging insults and threatening imminent war, the men went out of their way to be gracious. Trump even declared it an “honour” to be sitting next to the North Korean leader.
“I feel really great and we’re going to have a great discussion and, I think, tremendous success, it will be tremendously successful,” Trump said, adding: “It’s my honour and we will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.”
At the start of the first ever meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, the two men walked towards each other and grasped each others’ hands and then turned unsmiling towards the cameras. Trump appeared to be speaking to Kim throughout the 12 seconds of their handshake. Kim could be heard replying in English: “I’m very happy to meet you in Singapore” as the US president patted his arm.
The handshake took place in front of a row of alternating US and North Korean flags at the Capella Hotel, a former British colonial barracks converted into a luxury hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa island resort.
As the two men walked off together through a high-ceilinged colonnade, Kim appeared to relax, flashed a smile and seemed to say something. Then the two sat down on either side of coffee table to begin a one-on-one meeting with translators but no aides or advisors. Their aides are due to join the summit after the first session.
For both men, the high-stakes encounter is the most consequential meeting of their lives, addressing the future of North Korean’s nuclear arsenal and a peace agreement to end the precarious and tense 65 year limbo that has endured since the Korean War.
Even before the two leaders had left their separate city centre hotels and driven the 13 minutes through blocked-off police-lined roads to the island summit venue, the US president used Twitter to claim victory and hit back at his critics.
“The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers,” Trump wrote. “We have our hostages, testing, research and all missle [sic] launches have stoped, and these pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say! We will be fine!”
At dawn, three hours before the summit was due to begin, Trump focused on his domestic audience reminding them of the economic successes of his presidency, with the stock market up and unemployment down. And he made clear that, whatever the role of diplomats and aides in setting up the meeting, it would be the personal exchange between him and Kim that would be decisive.
“Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly … but in the end, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen!”
Immediately after the summit, Trump is due to give an interview to Fox New commentator, Sean Hannity, the president’s most fervent supporter in the media. The president is also due to give a press conference.
Kim also appeared to be focused on his own domestic audience, albeit it one without a vote. The front page of the Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, was covered in pictures of the leader’s late-night stroll through the bright lights of downtown Singapore. It was highly unusual for state media to report on international events so speedily and to display the prosperity of other Asian nations so prominently.
The US and North Korean have entered into two major previous agreements over the past 26 years aimed at trading North Korean nuclear weapons for security guarantees and economic incentives. Both those deals, in 1994 and 2005 fell apart amid mutual suspicion, with each side blaming the other for violations.
In the absence of a deal, the Pyongyang regime has built up its arsenal. It is now believed to have at least two dozen warheads, including a thermo-nuclear bomb, and is close to building an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a warhead to the US mainland.
Kim declared in the New Year that the regime had completed its mission to build a nuclear deterrent, and since then has suspended nuclear and missile tests. Negotiations to hold a summit began in March, brokered by the South Korean government.
Observers said that the heavy domestic focus of both leaders suggested that both would be determined to portray the outcome as a success, whatever was and was not agreed in their meeting at the Capella grand colonial-era hotel on Sentosa, a holiday resort advertised by Singapore as “the State of Fun”.
Some suggested that the fact that Kim was advertising the attractions of prosperity was a hopeful sign that he was serious about making security trade-offs to secure economic incentives.
James Walsh, a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with extensive experience in back-channel negotiations with the Pyongyang government said that the focus on personal chemistry rather than technical details represented a win for the North Korea.
“In the 18 years I have worked on [North Korea], the ongoing debate between the US and North Korea was essentially this – US: change your behaviour and we can be friends,” Walsh said. The North Korean approach, he added was: “Let’s be friends (ie, change the relationship), and then we will change our behaviour.”
“One can imagine either approach making sense under certain circumstances,” Walsh said. “Today, I think Trump has moved closer to the relationship approach.”
US partners in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan, are concerned that Trump’s eagerness to struck a diplomatic win might lead to him to give away too much too early, perhaps undermining US security guarantees to its allies as a way of resassuring Kim of the safety of his regime.
Before the summit meeting, Trump called the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to brief them on developments. The White House said the president” Agreed to consult closely following the meeting.”