President Donald Trump has wrapped up his five-hour nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with surprisingly warm words and hope for “a bright new future” for Mr Kim’s isolated and impoverished nation.
Yet he immediately faced pointed questions at home about whether he got little and gave away much in his push to make a deal with the young autocrat – including an agreement to halt US military exercises with South Korea.
Meeting with staged ceremony on a Singapore island, Mr Trump and Mr Kim signed a joint statement on Tuesday agreeing to work toward a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, although the timeline and tactics were left unclear.
Mr Trump later promised to end “war games”, with ally South Korea, a concession to Mr Kim that appeared to catch the Pentagon and Seoul government off guard and sowed confusion among Mr Trump’s Republican supporters in Washington.
The head-scratching was a fitting end for a meeting marked by unpredictability. The face to face was unthinkable just months earlier as the two leaders traded insults and nuclear threats.
In agreeing to the summit, Mr Trump risked granting Mr Kim his long-sought recognition on the world stage in hopes of ending the North’s nuclear programme.
While progress on the nuclear question was murky, the leaders spent the public portions of their five hours together expressing optimism and making a show of their new relationship.
Mr Trump declared he and Mr Kim had developed “a very special bond”.
He gave Mr Kim a glimpse of the presidential limousine. Mr Kim, for his part, said the leaders had “decided to leave the past behind” and promised, “The world will see a major change”.
Soon, Mr Kim was on a plane headed home, while a clearly ebullient Mr Trump held forth for more than an hour before the press on what he styled as a historic achievement to avert the prospect of nuclear war.
Before leaving himself, Mr Trump tossed out pronouncements on US alliances, human rights and the nature of the accord that he and Mr Kim had signed.
The details of how and when the North would denuclearise appear yet to be determined, as are the nature of the unspecified “protections” Mr Trump is pledging to Mr Kim and his government.
As Mr Trump acknowledged that denuclearisation would not be accomplished overnight, the North suggested that Mr Trump had moved away from his demand for complete denuclearisation before US sanctions on the long-isolated country are removed.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said on Wednesday the two leaders “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 denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
The White House did not immediately respond to the North Korean characterisation of the deal.
The Singapore accord largely amounts to an agreement to continue discussions, echoing previous public statements and commitments. It does not, for instance, include an agreement to take steps toward ending the technical state of warfare between the US and North Korea.
Nor does it detail plans for North Korea to demolish a missile engine testing site, a concession Mr Trump said he had won, or Mr Trump’s promise to end military exercises in the South while negotiations between the US and the North continue.
Mr Trump cast that decision as a cost-saving measure, but also called the exercises “inappropriate” while talks continue. North Korea has long objected to the drills as a security threat.
It was unclear whether South Korea was aware of Mr Trump’s decision before he announced it publicly.
US Forces Korea said in a statement on Tuesday it was unaware of any policy change.
Mr Trump phoned South Korean president Moon Jae-in after leaving Singapore to brief him on the discussions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Seoul on Wednesday for follow-up meetings.
The US has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in the 1950s and has used them in a variety of drills. The next scheduled major exercise, involving tens of thousands of troops, normally is held in August.
The Pentagon said Tuesday it was consulting with the White House and others, but was silent on whether the August exercise would proceed.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’s chief spokeswoman, Dana W White, told reporters he was “in full alignment” with Mr Trump.
Politicians, too, were looking for details.
Republicans emerged from a meeting with vice president Mike Pence wanting more information on which exercises were on hold.
Colorado Senator Corey Gardner said Mr Pence told them that small-scale exercises would continue, but “war games will not”. Mr Pence’s spokeswoman later denied that comment.
North Korea is believed to possess more than 50 nuclear warheads, with its atomic programme spread across more than 100 sites constructed over decades to evade international inspections.
Mr Trump insisted that strong verification of denuclearisation would be included in a final agreement, saying it was a detail his team would begin sorting out with the North Koreans next week.
Later, tweeting from Air Force One, which just landed in Hawaii to refuel on the trip back from Singapore, Mr Trump thanked Mr Kim for “taking the first bold step toward a bright new future for his people”, saying their summit “proves that real change is possible!”
“There is no limit to what NoKo can achieve when it gives up its nuclear weapons and embraces commerce & engagement w/ the world,” he said.