President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un was unquestionably historic.
Yet what it will mean for denuclearization — and future relations between the United States and North Korea — remains unclear.
“Nothing has happened yet, but stay tuned,” Laicie Heeley, a fellow at the Stimson Center and host of Public Radio International’s Things That Go Boom podcast, said in a phone interview. “Right now, we’re further from war than we were. Tensions are de-escalated, and that’s a good thing on its face. But we’re still not much closer than we were to a deal.”
Trump on Tuesday became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader. It was a surreal summit — one that saw the two leaders adopt a warm posture toward one another, pave the way toward future negotiations and sign an agreement outlining their goal to “build a lasting and stable peace.”
Yet the Singapore summit was also characteristically messy, and it was challenging Tuesday to separate the substance from the symbolism.
Trump appeared to have a good rapport with Kim that belied the petty insults and grave threats the two spent 2017 hurling at one another. Experts and lawmakers on Tuesday viewed the shift toward diplomacy as a positive step, but also expressed concern that Trump conceded too much to Kim in the ambiguous agreement — and lent the brutal dictator legitimacy by offering him fulsome praise on an international stage.
“I’m glad that they’re talking, but I’m concerned President Trump gave up too much without getting any specific concessions in return,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement provided to Mic.
Trump said in a press conference following his meeting with Kim that he agreed to suspend America’s joint military exercises with South Korea on the Korean Peninsula, describing the exercises as “war games.” Kaine — whose son is a Marine who helps train foreign militaries — said in the statement that Trump’s “quick willingness to cancel joint military exercises with our allies shows that he doesn’t understand how important these exercises are.”
“When you train foreign militaries, that’s not a ‘war game,’ it’s training our allies to defend themselves both as a deterrent and so the U.S. won’t always have to be involved in foreign wars,” Kaine said. “We’ve seen no details on whether North Korea will disclose everything that’s in their nuclear arsenal or how we would verify each step they take to dismantle it, something that’s critically important in any deal with an adversary.”
But according to Heeley, while there’s cause for concern that Trump gave up more than Kim, the concession is reversible and not “the end of the world.” What’s more worrying, Heeley said, was Trump’s effusive praise for Kim and his apparent skittishness about addressing the North Korean dictator’s brutal human rights record.
“It was really, really in bad taste, a lot of the things the president said,” Heeley said. “The way Trump has treated Kim, and also the way he’s treated other dictators around the world, it’s really hard to ignore the fact that Trump really is giving these folks a lot of legitimacy on the world stage.”
Trump repeatedly embraced Kim during meetings and photo-ops Tuesday, and in comments after the summit spoke glowingly of the North Korean leader.
“He’s very talented,” Trump said of Kim during a news conference in Singapore. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough ... very few people at that age, you can take one out of 10,000 maybe couldn’t do it.”
“His country does love him,” Trump added in a later interview with ABC News.
North Korea has long been considered one of the world’s most repressive nations, and Kim is known as an egregious human rights abuser for crimes against humanity, including the detention of up to 130,000 people in prison camps.
“This really does need to be a part of the process at some point,” Heeley said. “We do have to talk about human rights.”
Michelle Dover, director of programs at Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, said in a phone interview that Trump’s language on Kim wasn’t entirely surprising — and may indicate that he’s open to further diplomacy.
“I think for Trump, chemistry is important,” Dover said. “For this president, if we’re going to see a continuing of negotiations, I would probably be worried if [his tone] was something that was much cooler.”
Still, Dover said, his praise for Kim was “problematic” and the administration will have to address North Korea’s human rights record — even if those conversations come after the nuclear issue is addressed.
“It’s obviously something that will be concerning if we move forward and Kim Jong Un receives full legitimacy in the international community before he’s pressed on human rights,” Dover said.
Trump had previously spoken harshly of Kim and his human rights record, describing the dictator in 2017 as a “madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.”
Back then, he and Kim were engaged in a war of words that paired juvenile insults with nuclear brinkmanship. A strong diplomatic push by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the beginning of 2018 de-escalated tensions on the peninsula and led to significant breakthroughs, including a meeting between Moon and Kim in April and between Trump and Kim on Tuesday.
The latter included a great deal of spectacle, both in the meeting itself and on its periphery — something that is perhaps not surprising, given the extraordinary nature of the meeting and the president’s penchant for pageantry.
Everything from the leaders’ historic first handshake to parts of their discussions was conducted in front of cameras — something that did not appear to be lost on the leaders.
“Very nice,” Trump said to photographers as he sat down for a working lunch with Kim. “Getting a good picture, everybody, so we look nice and handsome and thin?”
If the optics of Trump meeting with the infamously reclusive dictator were at times surreal, they were matched by some of the media coverage — which included a bizarre CNN appearance by Dennis Rodman, who counts both Trump and Kim as friends.
The former NBA star, who first visited North Korea in 2013, broke down in tears during an interview with Chris Cuomo Monday as he discussed the “amazing” meeting between the two leaders.
“It’s a great day,” Rodman said.
But significant questions remain about the substance of what was accomplished Tuesday.
The U.S. is looking to convince North Korea to completely denuclearize — something they apparently attempted to accomplish Tuesday by showing Kim a bizarre short video depicting what life could be like in the country if the regime gave up its weapons.
However, the two sides have yet to even agree on what denuclearization would mean and the process by which it would occur, Heeley and Dover said.
“We need to agree on a specific definition of denuclearization. We need to put it down on paper. We need verifiable steps,” Heeley said. “That’s going to take a long time.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s apparent agreement to suspend the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea has reportedly triggered confusion both in Washington and Seoul. According to the New York Times, Trump’s announcement took both the U.S. Department of Defense and South Korea’s Blue House by surprise.
That would mark the second move in less than a month Trump made without coordinating with one of America’s strongest allies in the region — after Trump abruptly canceled the Singapore summit in May, Moon convened an emergency meeting with his top aides to “figure out what President Trump’s intention is and what it’s exact meaning is.”
Still, Moon cheered Tuesday’s summit, saying “we will write a new chapter of peace and cooperation.”
Experts also expressed a cautious optimism in interviews with Mic, with Dover calling the Trump-Kim meeting on Tuesday “progress,” though a lot “depends on what happens next.”
“It’s a positive step to be walking away from the brink,” Dover said.
Still, while there are things to be optimistic about, Heeley also expressed concern over all the question marks that remain.
“It’s better than trading insults on Twitter,” Heeley said, “but we’re far from denuclearization.”