World News

North Korea Says It Won Major Concessions From Trump in Singapore

Posted June 13, 2018 10:14 a.m. EDT

SEOUL, South Korea — A day after its leader’s historic talks with President Donald Trump, North Korea wasted no time Wednesday spinning the results in its favor, claiming it had won major concessions from the United States.

The authoritarian country’s state-controlled news media said that Trump had promised to eventually lift sanctions against the North and to end joint military drills with South Korea. It also said the United States had agreed to a phased, “step-by-step” denuclearization process for the North, rather than the immediate dismantling of its nuclear capability.

If the talks in Singapore on Tuesday gave Trump an opportunity to play the diplomat on a grand scale, they did no less for Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, whose country has long sought such a meeting with a U.S. president. The state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun plastered the pages of its Wednesday edition with color photographs of Kim and Trump talking, walking and smiling, apparently as equals, with the flags of the two countries arranged side by side as a backdrop.

But amid the optics, analysts were still looking for answers to questions they had been asking since March, when Trump accepted Kim’s invitation to meet: Under what terms, and by when, is Kim going to denuclearize his country? What does he mean when he says he is committed to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?”

They got few new clues Wednesday.

The joint statement that Kim and Trump signed Tuesday contained vaguely worded commitments to “complete denuclearization,” “new” relations between their countries and a “peace regime” on the peninsula. In many ways, it was a rehash of agreements that the two nations had reached in the past but never honored.

Only after the signing ceremony did it emerge that more commitments had apparently been made. In a post-summit news conference Tuesday, Trump announced that the United States would end joint military exercises with its South Korean allies, which Pyongyang has long denounced as rehearsals for an invasion of the North. The news appeared to catch both the South Korean government and the U.S. military off guard.

On Wednesday, the office of President Moon Jae-in in Seoul appeared to endorse Trump’s decision. “While North Korea and the United States are engaged in sincere talks on denuclearization and relations-building, we recognize the need to find various options to smooth such dialogue,” said spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.

Also on Wednesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Trump had agreed to “lift sanctions” once bilateral relations improve. Trump had said Tuesday that the sanctions would stay in place until North Korea dismantled enough of its nuclear program to make it difficult to reverse course. Trump said the denuclearization process would begin “very soon” and happen “very quickly.”

But the North Korean news agency said the two leaders had agreed to a phased process in which Pyongyang would bargain away its nuclear arsenal in stages, securing reciprocal actions from the United States at each step. Such a process has been opposed by U.S. hard-liners like John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, who has argued in the past that the North must quickly dismantle and ship out its nuclear weapons program in its entirety, as Libya did more than a decade ago.

“Kim Jong Un and Trump had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

To some, including Moon, the summit meeting was a success even if many questions remained unanswered. Moon and others saw it as the clearest signal yet that the two countries were walking away from the brink of war and were willing to take bold steps to end decades of hostility.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests, released three American hostages and disabled its only known nuclear test site. Kim agreed Tuesday to help the United States find and bring home the remains of Americans from major Korean War battle sites in the North.

But the agreement signed Tuesday lacks any detail on the central issue, denuclearization, raising fears among analysts that once negotiators wade into the specifics, the talks could end in stalemate, as they have after past nuclear disarmament accords. South Korean officials hope that the two strong-willed leaders will push the process ahead, with an eye on their legacies. Kim needs to improve ties with Washington and lift sanctions if he wants to keep his promise to develop North Korea’s economy. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly boasted that he would resolve a problem his predecessors could not. He appears to believe that his willingness to engage the once-hermetic Kim on the global spotlight will encourage him to shed his isolation and denuclearize.

“President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem,” Trump said Wednesday on Twitter. “No longer — sleep well tonight!”

Trump has recently begun to acknowledge that denuclearization could take time, but he appears eager for it to start quickly. He said Tuesday that Kim had promised to dismantle a facility for testing missile engines. In an interview with ABC News, Trump also said North Korea planned to “get rid of certain ballistic missile sites and various other things.” As of Wednesday, there had been no announcement from North Korea about removing such facilities.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in South Korea, where he is to meet with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Thursday to coordinate their policies on North Korea.

“The critical question is what comes next?” Kelsey Davenport, nonproliferation policy director at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said in an email. “The true test of success is whether the follow-on negotiations can close the gap between the United States and North Korea on the definition of denuclearization and lay out specific, verifiable steps that Pyongyang will take to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear weapons.”