With Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un set for what is one of the most significant diplomatic summits in decades, the US has said it it ready to offer North Korea unprecedented security guarantees to try to ease Pyongyang’s concerns over the fate of its nuclear programme.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Washington was prepared to go to new lengths to ensure the East Asian regime felt able to proceed with the peace process and work towards denuclearisation. While the US hopes such a carrot will win over Mr Kim, it will keep economic sanctions in place until North Korea gets rid of its nuclear weapons programme.
“We’re prepared to take actions that will provide them sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable that denuclearisation isn’t something that ends badly for them,” he told reporters. “It is the case we are prepared to give security assurances necessary for the North Koreans to engage in … denuclearisation.”
He added: “If diplomacy doesn’t move in the right direction, sanctions will increase.” While Mr Pompeo did not give specifics, his comments likely referred to assurances given to North Korea during previous attempts at detente between the two countries, most notably in 1994 and 2003. On both occasions, North Korea vowed to give up its programme in exchange for an easing of sanctions, but the efforts ended in failure and mutual suspicion.
Mr Pompeo’s comments made clear Washington’s position ahead of a one-on-one morning meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Trump, where only translators will be present. Those talks are scheduled for 45 minutes before a number of other sessions between the two leaders and other officials that will last into the afternoon.
It was precisely this same approach employed by the US and Soviet leaders 33 years ago, in a landmark 1985 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Some have likened the Singapore summit to that meeting, given the potential for political significance. Scheduled for just 15 minutes, the session between Mr Reagan and Mr Gorbachev stretched to more than an hour, “leaving half a dozen advisers from each side to wait in an ornate salon”.
Mr Trump has previously tried to reassure Mr Kim that he would not suffer the fate of someone like Muammar Gaddafi if he gives up his weapons. Pyongyang began to get cold feet about the summit when US national security adviser John Bolton said in interviews that North Korea should give up its weapons voluntarily as a starting point for discussions.
Mr Pompeo’s remarks came as officials from the US and North Korea worked frantically to try to be ready for the summit. While Mr Trump has recently played down the prospects of brokering a deal during a single meeting, experts have said the very fact they are even meeting – the first between a North Korean leader and sitting US president – is nothing less than remarkable.
Less than a year ago, as North Korea aggressively stepped up its testing of missiles and nuclear material, Mr Trump threatened to completely destroy the country, in his maiden address to the UN General Assembly.
Mr Trump said on Monday he expected his meeting with Mr Kim could “work out very nicely” and tweeted that there was “excitement in the air”. During a lunch with Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, the US president said: “We’ve got a very interesting meeting… tomorrow, and I just think it’s going to work out very nicely.”
Commenting for the first time on the summit, North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency earlier said the two sides would exchange “wide-ranging and profound views” to reset relations. It heralded the summit as part of a “changed era”.
Discussions would focus on “the issue of building a permanent and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean peninsula, the issue of realising the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and other issues of mutual concern,” KCNA said.
Later, Mr Kim ventured out of his hotel for a walk with Singapore officials. The first stop was a waterfront park called Gardens by the Bay, with futuristic installations, which boasts the largest glass greenhouse and tallest indoor waterfall in the world.
He joined Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, stopping at the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which resembles a giant surfboard perched on three tall columns, for a look out over the bright lights of the city from its rooftop garden and swimming pool.
The rare public appearance of Mr Kim, waving and smiling to onlookers, adds to the more affable image of the young leader that has emerged since his summit in April with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.
However, a selfie involving Mr Balakrishnan and Mr Kim, which was posted to Mr Balakrishnan’s Twitter feed and shared thousands of times, sparked criticism. Some are wary of providing the North Korean leader with such opportunities to make the most of soft diplomacy given North Korea’s record on human rights. The UN has said that North Koreans live under “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations”, alleging torture, imprisonment and more.
Mr Trump has sought to prioritise a potential nuclear deal, so it is unclear if human rights will be mentioned in the meeting with Mr Kim.
Iran said North Korea should be wary of negotiating with Mr Trump following his withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on Monday that North Korea should approach this week’s summit with Mr Trump with “awareness”. He said Iran viewed Mr Trump and the US with “great pessimism”, saying they are known for “quitting treaties and violating their commitments”.