SINGAPORE – President Donald Trump put his extraordinary gamble with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to the test on Tuesday, sitting for unprecedented and surreal talks with the rogue kingdom’s despotic leader in what he hopes will amount to a historic breakthrough.
The two men — both intent on making history — greeted each other with extended hands in front of a row of US and North Korean flags, a previously unthinkable sight that reflects a new chapter in the two countries’ acrimonious relationship.
Later, Trump said his historic summit with Kim was going “very, very good” and predicted an eventual agreement on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, a gut-level assessment Trump had claimed earlier in the week he would make within the first minutes of the meeting.
“Excellent relationship,” he said as he emerged from one-on-one talks after 38 minutes.
Trump’s threats to politely walk out of the meeting if his expectations were unmet did not materialize. Instead he predicted he could “solve a big problem, a big dilemma” alongside his new partner.
“Working together, we’ll get it taken care of,” Trump said.
The remarks came amid an improbable series of events that few could have anticipated even three months ago. The unlikely images of US and North Korean counterparts engaging in friendly dialogue lent the day an air of unreality. In a detailed menu, the White House said the men were served Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Other developments fueled that impression. Minutes before the historic handshake, Trump tweeted that his top economic adviser Larry Kudlow had suffered a heart attack. Immediately after the encounter, Dennis Rodman — one of the only Americans to have met Kim — was openly weeping while being interviewed by CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Even Kim seemed to acknowledge the surreality of the day.
“Many people in the world will think of this as a (inaudible) form of fantasy … from a science fiction movie,” his translator was overheard saying as the two leaders walked down a white-columned colonnade.
Earlier, Trump patted Kim on the back and placed his hand on the North Korean’s shoulder as they walked into their meeting.
“I feel really great. We’ll have a great discussion,” Trump said at the beginning of the talks.
“This will be tremendously successful,” he continued. “We will have a terrific relationship.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Kim alluded to the longstanding enmity between his country and the United States.
“It has not been easy to come to this point,” Kim said, according to a CNN translation of his remarks. “For us the past has been holding us back, and old practices and prejudices have been covering our eyes and ears, but we have been able to overcome everything to arrive here today.”
Trump nodded in agreement.
The meeting comes only months after the two men traded nuclear taunts, ratcheting up tensions and leading to fears of war.
Whether nuclear disarmament is indeed the outcome of Tuesday’s summit won’t be known for years, if not decades. But the dramatic act of extending his hand to one of America’s longtime adversaries will forever illustrate Trump’s gut-driven, norm-shattering tenure.
After the men shook hands, they repaired inside for one-on-one talks. In that first meeting they were joined only by translators, a break from standard practice of having at least one aide present for high-stakes huddles.
Later in the day, advisers joined the talks for a larger bilateral session and a working lunch. Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, chief of staff John Kelly, national security adviser John Bolton and the US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, who has lent his Korea expertise to the talks.
In the lead-up to the summit, US and North Korean officials were convening contentious final-hour negotiations in a Ritz Carlton hotel here in a bid to narrow gaps on key aspects of the meeting. In question is Pyongyang’s precise commitment to nuclear disarmament, and the security guarantees the US is willing to offer in return.
One US official said the two sides were working to craft a joint US-North Korea “statement of understanding” that could be released after the talks. The language in that document has been the fraught topic of discussion at the 11th-hour negotiations.
It’s not clear what the US side has been able to extract from the North Koreans in terms of their willingness to get rid of their nuclear weapons or allow inspectors into the country to catalogue the scale of their program.
That didn’t stopped Trump from heightening anticipation for the summit, which he views as a landmark event that his predecessors could never have accomplished.
Trump has taken keen interest in the pageantry of the day, insisting the pictures beamed around the world reflect a commanding leader making a decisive, world-altering move. At the same time, he’d admitted he doesn’t believe he requires extensive preparation to take stock of Kim.
Instead, he told reporters last weekend he would rely on “my touch, my feel” to assess the young and mercurial leader. He added he would know within minutes whether Kim was serious about negotiating away his nuclear weapons and has threatened to politely walk out if Kim doesn’t meet his expectations.
At one point, Trump suggested to reporters the talks could extend to a second or even a third day if they were going well. He was originally scheduled to leave on Wednesday. But on Monday evening, the White House announced Trump would depart for Washington by 8 p.m. Tuesday evening in Singapore, leaving little time for follow-up. Before he leaves he’ll sit for an interview with his friend, the Fox host Sean Hannity, and convene a media availability for other reporters.
A US official confirmed to CNN Trump’s departure was moved up by more than 12 hours because Kim set his own departure for shortly after the summit. The official cautioned, however, that the schedule could always change if meeting goes well and there is more to discuss.
Tuesday’s meeting, convened at a luxury hotel on the island of Sentosa, comes just three months after Trump accepted North Korea’s invitation for talks on the spot. It was an extraordinarily compressed timeline for the landmark summit, one that left aides scrambling to initiate communication with the hermit nation.
The sides first spoke through intelligence channels, with US analysts working to determine Kim’s true willingness to abandon a nuclear program started by his grandfather and viewed by Pyongyang as a security blanket from outside aggressors.
Pompeo, who led the outreach as CIA director, traveled twice to North Korea for preliminary talks. His sessions with Kim amounted to the most robust contact ever between the United States and the North Korean leader, providing critical information about a man about whom little is known.
Talks proceeded at multiple levels, including logistical discussions to allay Kim’s fears of being deposed while traveling further afield than he ever has before as the country’s leader. The site of the historic talks was a matter of intense speculation before the US President announced on Twitter it would occur here in Singapore, the flashy Southeast Asian city-state that has eagerly accommodated the spectacle.
More than 2,500 journalists have convened here, with each leader’s every movement tracked carefully. A day before the summit, Trump mostly remained inside his Shangri-la hotel, emerging only to meet with his Singaporean counterpart at the presidential palace. Later in the day, he met with senior advisers and phoned the leaders of Japan and South Korea.
Kim, meanwhile, was spotted taking a moonlit stroll around the high-end Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, which is owned by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Kim was cheered by onlookers who caught sight of the dictator, who until earlier this spring was not believed to have ever left North Korea as supreme leader.