SINGAPORE (AFP) — Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un made history on Tuesday, becoming the first sitting US and North Korean leaders to meet and shake hands ahead of their attempt to negotiate to end a decades-old nuclear stand-off.
On a small stage bedecked with the US and North Korean flags, the two leaders strode toward each other and shook hands, with Trump grasping Kim on the shoulder, before walking off for their meeting.
As they sat down for their one-on-one meeting, the US leader predicted a “terrific relationship” with Kim.
“We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt,” Trump said amid smiles and backslapping that belied the decades of tension and blood spilled between the two Cold War foes.
North Korea and the United States have overcome the obstacles of a difficult history to hold their summit in Singapore, the North’s leader Kim Jong Un said as the unprecedented meeting opened Tuesday.
“The way to come to here was not easy,” Kim said, sitting at a table with Trump. “The old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward but we overcame all of them and we are here today.”
The one-on-one meeting concluded after around 48 minutes Tuesday. The two men met with only their interpreters, before going into a second meeting where they are joined by key aides.
Trump said the meeting with Kim was “very, very good” and that the two have an “excellent relationship.”
Trump was flanked in the larger meeting by chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. They sat across the table from Kim and his team.
Trump said Tuesday at the beginning of expanded discussions with aides from both countries that “We will solve a big problem” and “a big dilemma.”
He talked about the pair achieving “tremendous success together” and predicted that “it will be successful. It will be done.”
It was hard to hear the president and Kim over the constant clicking of camera shutters, and it remained unclear precisely what he was referring to.
The extraordinary summit — unthinkable only months ago — comes after the two nuclear-armed foes appeared on the verge of conflict late last year as they slung personal insults and Kim conducted nuclear and missile tests.
In a series of tweets early Tuesday, Trump indicated that summit preparations were “going well and quickly”.
“We will all know soon whether or not a real deal, unlike those of the past, can happen,” he tweeted — before hitting out in a subsequent post at “haters & losers” who see the summit itself as a risky up-front concession to Kim.
The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers. We have our hostages, testing, research and all missle launches have stoped, and these pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say! We will be fine!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2018
Pointing at the recent release of three American hostages and Pyongyang’s pledge to refrain from further nuclear or missile tests, Trump charged that “these pundits, who have called me wrong from the beginning, have nothing else they can say!”
“We will be fine!” he tweeted.
Under heavy security, the leaders left their two hotels for the palms and whitewashed walls of Singapore’s ultra-exclusive Capella Hotel, where the summit takes place.
The face-to-face with Kim is a far cry from last year when Trump called on the international community to exert “maximum pressure” to buckle the reclusive regime and threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the US.
For his part, Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” and said he would “tame” him, “with fire”.
That will seem a distant memory when the two men will walk towards each other and then sit down for an initial half-day of meetings with ramifications for the entire world.
It is a historic meeting for both men — perhaps comparable to president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, or Ronald Reagan’s summit 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik.
It is potentially legacy-defining — as long as they can disprove critics’ fears that the meeting will be more about drama than detail.
The North has promised to give up its weapons in the past, while a long history of previous agreements have ultimately foundered.
“If there is no statement of intentions to move toward a peace treaty, if there’s no statement from the North Korean side on denuclearisation, we’re going to find ourselves very quickly in a very hollow summit,” said Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution.
If that happened, he added, “quickly we’ll move into a space of mutual recrimination and finger-pointing about whose fault it was”.
Hugely symbolic talks
The pair — Kim in his 30s and consolidating his dictatorship, Trump in his 70s and struggling to bend Washington to his impetuous will — are unlikely protagonists, both instantly recognisable and larger-than-life.
But their work this week is deadly serious.
Washington and Pyongyang are still technically at war, even if the mortars, carbines and gunships of the bloody 1950s conflict have long since fallen silent.
And the totalitarian regime has made rapid progress towards marrying nuclear and missile technology that would put Los Angeles, New York and Washington within striking distance of a nuclear holocaust.
The United States says that is unacceptable and will be dealt with, one way or another.
But for North Korea the mere fact of the talks is a hugely symbolic advance.
For its leader, standing as an equal beside the US president in front of a phalanx of cameras is a goal the pariah state has sought for decades, with critics charging that it legitimises one of the most ruthless regimes.
On Monday evening Kim — accompanied by a phalanx of bodyguards and his personal television crew — took a night-time stroll on the Singapore waterfront, even posing for grinning selfies with the city-state’s foreign minister.
Yet it remains far from clear that Pyongyang is willing to give up its nuclear weapons, which it says it needs to defend itself against a US invasion.
On the eve of the meeting, aides from both sides were still scrambling to narrow yawning differences over “denuclearisation”, which means vastly different things to the two parties.
Trump, who is due to leave Singapore on Tuesday evening, will use what he says are long-honed instincts to see whether Kim is bluffing, buying time or serious.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States was willing to offer the regime “unique” security guarantees, to “provide them sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable that denuclearisation is not something that ends badly for them”.
Kim and Trump will first meet one-on-one in a closed session, before a larger meeting with key advisers, US officials said.
But Pompeo signaled that the summit was likely to be the start of a longer process of negotiation, and warned the United States would not be “duped”, with nothing less than complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation considered.
AP contributed to this report