SINGAPORE — President Trump shook hands Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a secluded luxury resort here, reversing decades of U.S. policy toward the rogue authoritarian regime in an extraordinary gamble that his personal attention would help break a cycle of nuclear brinkmanship and stave off a military confrontation.
Trump and Kim met just after 9 a.m. local time at the grand Capella hotel on a stage with a red carpet and alternating U.S. and North Korean flags. They held their grip, then turned to face a small group of journalists for images to be beamed rapidly around the world.
The president motioned to Kim to leave the stage, and the two men retreated into a private chamber to meet one on one, joined only by their interpreters, with the aim of establishing a rapport before they were joined by aides for the more technical nuclear arms negotiations.
As they sat next to one another in a pair of armchairs, Trump declared, “It’s my honor, and we will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.”
Kim spoke in Korean, saying that “the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward, but we’ve overcome all of them, and we are here today.”
The unprecedented greeting between the unorthodox leader of the world’s richest and most powerful nation and the brutal ruler of the most isolated and repressive would have been considered almost unimaginable just months ago as Trump and Kim traded threats and insults. Never before had a sitting U.S. president met with a ruling Kim family patriarch, as previous White Houses refused to validate the regime amid its nuclear provocations and human rights abuses.
But beneath the remarkable images from the Capella was the thornier reality that the two sides remained divided on crucial issues and a path forward on a denuclearization plan, which could take years to complete and would probably face significant potential stumbling blocks along the way.
The goal of the summit was to ratify the outlines of a joint statement, to be released before the two men left Singapore later in the day, that laid out a framework for additional talks.
After their one-on-one meeting, the two leaders were joined by senior aides for more technical talks. On the U.S. side, Trump’s team included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
In the days leading up to the meeting, with negotiators struggling to reach a basic agreement on the scope of deal, Trump and his aides sought to lower expectations about how quickly the administration could convince Pyongyang to begin dismantling its nuclear and ballistics missile programs. Details on whether the North would agree to a specific time frame and regular international inspections of its progress, as well as what benefits the United States was offering in return, were not immediately disclosed.
Other major issues appeared to remain unresolved, including North Korea’s brutal human rights record, which Trump had lambasted last year after the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who had been held captive for 17 months and then released in a coma.
The question for Trump and Kim, four decades younger and taking a gamble of his own, was whether their risky encounter would produce a historic breakthrough to ease tensions, or collapse and leave Kim emboldened and U.S. influence weakened on the global stage.
“The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “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!”
Trump, who delights in challenging conventional wisdom, seized on the chance to do what other presidents could not, and, despite having taken office with scant geopolitical experience, quickly elevated the escalating North Korea threat to his top foreign policy priority. As Pyongyang demonstrated rapidly sophisticated proficiency in its nuclear arsenal, Trump oversaw a tightening of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Pyongyang — only to leap in March at Kim’s offer to meet and rush headlong into a summit, despite warnings from former U.S. officials that he was moving too quickly and rewarding the regime for its bad behavior.
At 8:53 a.m., a black stretch Mercedes sedan with North Korean flags on the front pulled up to the Capella. Kim stepped out in a traditional black Mao suit and quickly entered the building.
Trump followed six minutes later, emerging from the presidential limousine in a dark suit and red power tie. He entered the building with an impassive stare.
At 9:04 a.m., they strode toward each other from opposite ends of the makeshift outdoor stage, before a small contingent of assembled journalists, and met in the middle. They extended their hands and, as they shook, Trump patted Kim’s right shoulder with his left hand.
Trump appeared to speak to Kim before the two turned, let go of their grip and faced the cameras with serious expressions. The president then motioned for Kim to depart the stage. The North Korean leader appeared to smile as they strolled together toward private chambers.
It was the moment of truth for Trump, who last week boasted that he would be able to use his “touch” and his “feel” as a seasoned dealmaker to size up the leader of the world’s most opaque regime and determine within the first minute whether he was serious about making a deal.
It was unclear whether the president and the dictator could realistically reach any concrete agreements in just one day of talks.
Wide gaps remain between the North Korean and U.S. interpretations of what verification means. And the United States is insisting that it would not ease sanctions until North Korea’s denuclearization was complete. But Pompeo told reporters a day before the summit that the administration was prepared to provide security assurances unlike any that previous administrations have offered.
Trump and his team vowed Monday that the United States would not repeat past missteps in negotiating with the rogue, nuclear-armed nation. Deals under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama collapsed after North Korea violated the agreements by conducting additional missile and nuclear tests.
“The United States has been fooled before — there’s no doubt about it,” Pompeo told reporters as the two sides raced to finalize summit details.
“Many presidents previously have signed off on a piece of paper only to find the North Koreans didn’t promise what we thought they had or actually reneged on their promises,” he added. “Despite any past flimsy agreements, the president will ensure no potential agreement fails to adequately address the North Korean threat.”
On his final day before meeting Kim, Trump sought to consolidate support from key allies, speaking by phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have been in close coordination with the White House for months.
Pompeo pronounced Trump well prepared for the meeting, emphasizing that the president was determined not to reward Kim until the North had taken concrete steps toward curbing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“The president has made very clear that until the time we get the outcome we’re demanding, economic relief will not be provided,” Pompeo said. “That’s different. There’s always been the hypothesis that somewhere along the way America would take its foot off. We will not do that.”
Sanctions will “remain until they have verifiably eliminated” the nuclear program, he said. “If it does not move in the right direction, those measures will increase.”
Trump spent the day before meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who feted him with a birthday cake in honor of his 72nd birthday Thursday. The president then privately addressed U.S. Embassy staff and families before retiring for the evening to his suite at the heavily secured Shangri La Hotel.
Despite Trump’s flair for the dramatic and love of the spotlight, it was the largely unknown Kim who stole the pre-summit show in the hours leading up to their meeting here.
Kim and his delegation were escorted on a sightseeing tour of the city’s gleaming waterfront skyline Monday night by his Singaporean hosts, who seemed to be encouraging the North Korean leader to dream big — allowing him to see firsthand a gleaming testament to prosperity and modernity.
For Kim, it was a remarkable show that he, like Trump, is intent on upsetting the status quo. He flashed a big smile and posed for photographs as he freely strolled the waterfront and appeared to revel in the global media spotlight and the cheers of onlookers — and, perhaps, envisioned the kind of glittering future his country could have if it opened up to the outside world.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.