US President Donald Trump stood as an equal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un on Tuesday, shaking hands and offering a surprise concession in an extraordinary moment at the unlikeliest of summits between the world’s most powerful country and its most isolated.
Brushing aside months of nuclear and military threats, the pair became the first US and North Korean leaders in history to meet face-to-face.
The outcome was a vague, undetailed North Korean pledge for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the destruction of a missile test site. But from Trump came the promise to end joint military exercises with South Korea long viewed as a provocation in Pyongyang but necessary in Seoul, which did not appear to have prior knowledge of his decision.
Trump called the war games “very provocative” and “inappropriate”, a remarkable U-turn from the previous US position that they were non-negotiable. He also said they were expensive.
“We’re ready to write a new chapter between our nations,” the president said, depicting as the president who could secure a deal that had alluded all who had come before him.
He said crippling economic sanctions would not be lifted on the rogue regime until it demonstrated an end to its nuclear ambitions but signalled his belief that Kim would take moves to eradicate the country’s nuclear arsenal “very quickly”.
“We’re very proud of what took place today,” Mr. Trump said as he spoke for almost an hour to reporters as Kim flew home. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past.”
There remains no guarantee that Kim will follow through on his pledge, with it not going far beyond previous North Korean pledges. But Trump assigned his confidence to an ability to read his political interlocutor and the chemistry he is able to build with those he meets.
Both men – one 34-years-old and the other 71 – took personal gambles to meet with the other, first in a one-on-one with interpreters, then a meeting with aides and third a sit-down for lunch, in a once unthinkable Singapore summit on the southern island of Sentosa.
Trump has faced criticism for courting a leader accused of the severest of human rights abuses, while Kim may have traded a legitimising photo-op with the American president for Pyongyang’s biggest bargaining chip: its nuclear weapons programme.
The joint statement signed by the pair outlined a US commit to “provide security guarantees” to North Korea while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
There was no timetable offered for the peace efforts, nor any detail on how any North Korean step to de-nuclearise would be verified. Trump said they would be ironed out in future discussions.
The statement said “follow-on negotiations” would be held by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a high-level North Korean official at “the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes” of the summit.
Senior figures both regional and international lauded Trump’s move to meet with Kim and secure a denuclearisation pledge on North Korea’s behalf, although a document signed by the pair was absent of detail.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who played a key role in brokering the meeting, said he told Trump the summit was a success that laid down a "big framework" for peace in the Korean Peninsula and the world.
China suggested the lifting of UN sanctions on North Korea if it showed progress on denuclearisation, while Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe called the summit the “first step” towards “complete denuclearisation” of the region.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all those concerned to "seize this momentous opportunity" while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that “this summit was a crucial and necessary step to build upon the positive developments achieved in inter-Korean relations”.
But Trump faced more scrutiny at home, where his campaign team is under investigation for potential collusion with the Russian government. Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer said the president had given up any American leverage over North Korea. He said the meeting was a “reality show summit”.
Singapore played host to the landmark meeting, pumping up its ceremony and tightening its security to the tune of around $15 million. Trump stayed at the Shangri-La hotel, liaising with aides on Monday as the world waited for the meeting, while Kim took to the streets for a night tour of the Southeast Asian city-state, visiting the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and taking selfies with the Singaporean political elite.
The summit almost never happened. The Trump administration called off the meeting when Pyongyang protested too strongly about its demand for denuclearisation, but the young North Korean leader embarked on a series of diplomatic acts of good faith to win round the billionaire construction magnate that he was serious.
He met with Moon and stepped onto South Korean soil for the first time at the end of April, released three American prisons and brought foreign media before the destruction of the country’s nuclear test site.
For all of the South Korean president’s hard work, which began with a diplomatic push around the February Winter Olympics, he said he “could hardly sleep” the night before the meeting that could change the region forever.