WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump’s dramatic meeting with North Korea’s leader may have been choreographed to look like a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, but the summit appears to have failed to secure any concrete commitments by Pyongyang for dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
Although Trump was quick to declare success for the unprecedented summit with Kim Jong Un marked by handshakes and smiles, experts said a joint statement signed in Singapore seemed mostly to rehash old broken promises made by Pyongyang to successive U.S. administrations.
That suggested that any lasting benefit to Trump on the world stage or at home will depend on whether, in the next stages of negotiations, he can turn the summit’s made-for-TV script into tangible progress toward Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament.
Trump’s supporters, who relish his unconventional diplomatic style, are likely to hail the summit as a foreign policy win for the president over one of America’s most bitter long-time foes even as he feuds with Washington’s closest allies after leaving an economic summit in Canada in disarray over the weekend.
On the domestic front, Trump is likely to tout his diplomatic engagement with North Korea as proof he is working to protect the United States as part of his “America First” agenda, although the summit did not appear to yield specific safeguards against Pyongyang’s long-range nuclear missiles.
Fellow Republicans, however, could attempt to use the summit to bolster their contention that American voters should allow them to retain control of Congress in pivotal congressional elections in November.
Many experts remained sceptical that Kim will ever give up his nuclear weapons, even though Trump insisted the process of denuclearisation will start “very, very quickly.”
“Unfortunately, we do not know if Kim has made a strategic decision to denuclearise and it is unclear if further negotiations will lead to the end goal of denuclearisation,” said Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “This looks like a restatement of where we left negotiations more than 10 years ago and not a major step forward.”
Trump may be credited with creating a positive atmosphere around the talks in Singapore, where a day of bonhomie in front of the cameras contrasted sharply with last year’s exchange of insults and threats with Kim that raised fears of war.
But, with the summit ending only with the signing of a statement of intent and offering no timetable for action, questions remained about whether the meeting has produced enough results to boost his international image and domestic standing over the longer term.
Trump and Kim’s joint pledge to work toward “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” was widely interpreted as failing to convince North Korea to accept Washington’s definition that calls for Pyongyang to get rid of its arsenal. North Korea historically has called for the removal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea and Japan.
“There is almost nothing of significant substance - or even new — in this document. It is a list of aspirational goals,” said Evans Revere, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea. “This is a win for North Korea, which seems to have yielded nothing.”
This comes at the same time that America’s traditional allies are reeling from a divisive summit of the Group of Seven major industrialised nations last week.
Other sources of friction include Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which has drawn criticism internationally, his administration’s feuding with China over tariffs and stumbling efforts to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. A federal investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election also hangs over his presidency.
Despite all this, Trump’s support from his right-wing political base remains strong, and his followers are likely to trumpet the outcome of the North Korea summit as the president achieving something his predecessors could not.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the U.S. negotiating team “delivers for America’s swagger.”
Trump himself scoffed at the sceptics earlier on Tuesday. “The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers,” he tweeted.
But the last three presidents secured commitments from North Korea on denuclearisation that North Korea later reneged on.
Although Trump insisted at a post-summit news conference that “I think he really wants to de-nuke,” the president was only able to cite a single unwritten pledge from Kim – to close a missile engine facility. Trump said, however, that he was willing to stop joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, a key demand from Pyongyang.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department diplomat specialising in the Koreas, said the summit was more about style and symbolism.
“It looked good on camera,” Oba said, adding that it would still be a relief to the region that relations remain on a positive trajectory.
But analysts said it was a far cry from the breakthrough that President Richard Nixon scored with his visit to communist China in 1972 that ended decades of estrangement between Washington and Beijing.
Trump insisted at a post-summit news conference that this was the start of a process and that sanctions would remain in place until Kim takes concrete steps toward denuclearisation.
But analysts said with the easing of tensions, China and South Korea were not likely to continue fully enforcing the tough measures needed to make sure North Korea makes good on its latest promises.
Joseph Yun, the State Department’s former North Korea negotiator who resigned earlier this year, expressed concern about a “slippery slope” where Pyongyang would soon say “you’re my friend … Why not ease sanctions?”
Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan