SINGAPORE — When President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands for the first time and sit down one-on-one here Tuesday, the bonhomie they plan to project will mask the huge gulf between their two countries as diplomats struggle to broker a deal for the rogue state to abandon its nuclear weapons.
The decision by Trump and Kim to begin their Singapore summit without their top advisers or nuclear arms specialists underscores that their real goal here is to develop a personal rapport and stage a global spectacle rather than ink the technical details of a denuclearization accord.
Both nations have sought to lower expectations for an immediate breakthrough this week in Singapore. Trump has described Tuesday’s summit as the first step in what could be a lengthy process, dangling the possibility of inviting Kim to the United States for a second meeting. And in an indication that Kim is like-minded, North Korean state media described a process of normalizing relations with the United States that would unfold over time.
When Trump meets Kim on Tuesday, the two leaders plan to shake hands and take a ceremonial walk before cameras at the Capella Hotel on the tropical resort island here of Sentosa, according to a senior U.S. official. After an hour or two of private discussions with only by their interpreters, Trump and Kim will be joined by their top advisers for a more traditional bilateral meeting.
Meanwhile, Trump and Kim’s representatives labored Monday here at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to find agreement on the substance of an eventual nuclear arms deal. The talks were preceded by negotiations over the previous month in New York and the Panmunjom truce village in North Korea, along the demilitarized zone with South Korea.
The working-level sessions, including those led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have foundered repeatedly over basic issues of what the summit should be about and an inability to close fundamental gaps in understanding over North Korean denuclearization.
A key stumbling block in the negotiations has been what comes first. The North Koreans want a firm security guarantee, meaning a promise that the United States will not attack or seek to overthrow Kim. The Americans want a substantive denuclearization pledge.
Victor D. Cha, a former national security official who has negotiated with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration, said, “It’s not surprising that they’re stuck.”
“They can’t even get past first base on the security assurances because the North Koreans will never define what it actually means to end the hostile policy,” said Cha, who was considered by Trump to be ambassador to South Korea.
Leading Monday’s talks in Singapore were veteran U.S. diplomat Sung Kim and Choe Son Hui, a vice foreign minister with a long history of dealing with the United States for the North Korean regime. They were still trying to draft a joint statement outlining the areas of agreement for Trump and Kim. Typically such precooked statements, or communiques, are worked out far in advance of summits.
U.S. negotiators have been unable to get the North Koreans to offer a substantive pledge on denuclearization up front, which has been the chief demand of the Trump administration.
The issue plagued a May 27 meeting in Panmunjom between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The talks began with the North Korean side, led by Choe, saying denuclearization should not be on the table for the Singapore summit — a position rejected by the Americans as a non-starter.
The two sides did not meet for two days, in part because the North Korean delegation did not have the authority to negotiate without additional guidance from Pyongyang, until reconvening briefly May 30 for a session that made little progress in resolving the impasse.
At the same time, North Korea sent former spy chief Kim Yong Chol to meet with Pompeo in New York. The North Korean was similarly noncommittal about denuclearization — and although Pompeo said they two made good progress, their May 31 meeting concluded two hours earlier than expected.
“The [Singapore] meeting is historic, but a real test of success will be whether it actually leads to concrete, steady, prompt progress toward the twin goals of denuclearization and the easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “By definition that requires a common understanding of what ‘denuclearization’ and ‘peace’ entails and what the major action-for-action steps must be.”
A senior White House official acknowledged the difficulty both sides have had working through more complicated details of a nuclear deal, but said Tuesday’s meeting between Trump and Kim will supersede the staff-level discussions and will drive the outcome.
A spokesman for the State Department declined to comment, saying the U.S. government will not discuss “the details of our private diplomatic discussions.”
Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration with expertise in Asia policy, said, “The biggest problem for the negotiators is the lack of trust on both sides.”
“The sticking point, historically, has been that the North Koreans have insisted we make the first move,” Farkas said. “In the past we did, and we got burned. The U.S. expert negotiating team is well aware of this history and will be working overtime to ensure that the North Koreans gain our trust by taking irreversible actions early, if not first.”
Trump called off the Singapore summit last month over what U.S. officials called stonewalling from the North Korean side, only to reinstate the meeting after receiving a personal letter from Kim.
Two U.S. officials familiar with the planning said the North Koreans became more communicative and cooperative after Trump’s June 1 announcement that the meeting was back on — but only to a point.
Run-up meetings were thin on technical nuclear discussions, those officials said, and looked almost nothing like the painstaking preparation for arms control summits of the past, including between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The U.S. delegation in Singapore does not include high-level expertise in nuclear inspection and verification, although senior U.S. diplomat Sung Kim is a veteran of the last lengthy nuclear arms control effort with North Korea, called the Six-Party Talks.
Trump’s enthusiasm for what he called the “unknown territory” of his meeting with Kim is starkly different than his testy discussions with democratic allies at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last Friday and Saturday.
Trump arrived to that meeting late and left early. Although Trump said his relationships with Canada, France, Germany and other traditional allies represented at the meeting are “a 10,” he broke with the group with an angry tweet accusing G-7 members of unfair trading practices.
The G-7 is the kind of traditional, polite, consensus-driven organization Trump instinctually distrusts. He complained ahead of time that he did not want to sit through lectures from other leaders, and some officials inside the White House mused about sending Vice President Pence in his place.
By contrast, Trump sounded excited about the prospect of one-to-one dealings with Kim, and the opportunity to make a bold stroke of his own design.
“This has probably rarely been done. It’s unknown territory, in the truest sense,” Trump said before leaving Canada for Singapore.
“But I really feel confident,” he added. “I feel that Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people, and he has that opportunity. And he won’t have that opportunity again. It’s never going to be there again.”
Hudson reported from Washington. David Nakamura in Singapore contributed to this report.