…Pentagon remains ‘ironclad’ after war games cancelled***
…As China likely to remind N. Korea of close ties after summit***
The agreement signed by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday appeared to contain no new pledges and was padded with vague language that many experts said would be difficult to enforce.
While some commentators were scathing, others painted the meeting as a historic first step in a process where the technical details would come later.
And even some critics conceded that any level of diplomacy was preferable to the apocalyptic threats Trump and Kim traded last year.
Tuesday’s document described itself as “an epochal event of great significance” and said Kim’s regime had agreed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
This commitment is nothing new.
As recently as April, North and South Korea pledged to work toward the “common goal” of “complete denuclearization” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
And in 1994, the U.S. and North Korea signed an “Agreed Framework,” which said Pyongyang would “consistently take steps to implement” a denuclearization pact from two years earlier.
“The declaration amounts to pretty much nothing — it’s an empty commitment,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told NBC News.
Lankov said he believed Trump had achieved an accomplishment by bringing Kim to the negotiating table, but squandered the opportunity by letting the despot give nothing away while gaining a plethora of photo opportunities and good PR.
“The Americans had the opportunity to force the North Koreans to make significant concessions, but they didn’t use the advantage they had,” said Lankov, who is also director of the NK News website.
The North Koreans are in no rush. Trump will be president for a maximum of seven more years; Kim plans to rule North Korea for the rest of his life.
Even if these are just the opening pleased-to-meet-yous, skeptics predict the North will drag its heels, canceling meetings, fudging details, so that the ever-more distant prospect of “denuclearization,” while agreed upon, is never actually fulfilled.
“They will play for time,” Lankov said.
Rüdiger Frank, a professor of East Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, wrote on Twitter that “Trump saved the process by taking it slow and one baby step at a time, rather than killing it before it starts.”
Meanwhile, The Pentagon has reassured allies of its “ironclad” security commitments, after President Donald Trump cancelled its Korean military exercises.
Mr Trump made the announcement after Tuesday’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
The move is seen as a big concession to North Korea and appeared to take US allies in the region by surprise.
Meanwhile, North Korean state media said Mr Kim had accepted an offer from President Trump to visit the US.
KCNA news agency said Mr Kim had invited Mr Trump to visit Pyongyang “at a convenient time” and Mr Trump had also invited Mr Kim to the United States.
“The two top leaders gladly accepted each other’s invitation,” KCNA added.
In his first reported comments since the talks, Mr Kim said it was “urgent” to halt “irritating and hostile military actions against each other”.
He said the two countries “should commit themselves to refraining from antagonising” each other “and take legal and institutional steps to guarantee it”, KCNA reported.
How the summit unfolded
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The Kim-Trump summit – the first such meeting between the two countries – centred on nuclear disarmament and reducing regional tensions. It concluded with a one-page agreement.
In the press conference afterwards, however, Mr Trump added another announcement: the cancellation of the military exercises.
The drills, often called “war games”, are held in South Korea with local forces and US soldiers stationed there.
In the meantime, the outcome of the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was good news for one absent but key player: China.
China has emerged a big winner at the summit after Trump made surprising pledges to suspend war games with South Korea and eventually pull U.S. troops from there. Beijing dislikes the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan and has urged Washington to suspend the drills that Pyongyang claims are rehearsals for invasion, in return for the North’s halting of nuclear activities.
China wants to see a reduction in foreign military forces in Northeast Asia and for the gap between Washington and its allies and partners to widen, said Ryan Hass, who directed China policy for the U.S. National Security Council during the former President Barack Obama administration. “Beijing is now on track to achieve these objectives at little cost.”
But as soon as Kim steps off the plane China provided him for the Singapore trip, Beijing will be mindful of maintaining its influence over a Pyongyang that may feel less isolated after Trump showered Kim with praises, called him a “very talented man,” and made security concessions in return for very little.
“Any improvement I think in the bilateral relationship for the U.S. and North Korea, China could potentially see as a loss for China,” said Paul Haenle, a former China director at the White House National Security Council in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
Analysts say they expected that Kim would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping fairly quickly after the summit and that Xi would remind his North Korean counterpart about China’s willingness to help the North develop its economy.
Despite recent tensions between the communist neighbors, Xi has met Kim twice since April, most recently hosting a banquet for him and strolling with the young leader along a beach and through lush gardens at a coastal Chinese city last month.
That meeting in Dalian was seen as an effort by China to ensure that Beijing’s voice was heard when Kim later met with Trump. In the on-again, off-again run-up to the summit, Trump at one point blamed Kim’s trip to China for creating an unwelcome “change in attitude” by the North Korean leader. China moved quickly to urge both sides not to cancel the meeting.
Such maneuvers highlight the delicate balance China has to strike between encouraging Pyongyang and Washington to engage on ending the North’s nuclear program and pushing Pyongyang too far into Trump’s embrace.
China would be wary if the suspension of military exercises led to some kind of larger rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea, Haenle said. China, which fought the U.S. on behalf of the North in the 1950-53 Korean War, wants a stable, independent North Korea as a buffer with South Korea and the thousands of U.S. troops stationed there. Beijing is also hoping to convince Seoul to remove a sophisticated U.S. missile defense system that China sees as a threat to its security.
China remains North Korea’s only major ally and chief provider of energy, aid and trade that keep the country’s broken economy afloat. Ties in recent months have frayed as China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and suspended coal and iron ore imports. Pyongyang last year seemingly sought to humiliate Beijing by timing some of its missile tests for major global summits in China.
Haenle added that Beijing is well aware that Pyongyang is probably also trying to put some distance between itself and its powerful neighbor “so that China doesn’t have that kind of influence that it does with North Korea today.”
But the North’s long dependence on and trust in China are not easily unwound, analysts noted.
“Flying to the Singapore summit by Air China shows, to some extent, North Korea’s trust in China,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, referring to the Boeing 747 that China’s flag carrier put at Kim’s disposal. That constitutes “more trust than it has in the U.S. and South Korea,” he said.
NBC with additional report from BBC and Fox