World

After North Korea meeting, reactions range from deep skepticism to guarded optimism

A screen at a restaurant in Singapore displayed a news broadcast of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Brent Lewin/Bloomberg News
A screen at a restaurant in Singapore displayed a news broadcast of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

From the halls of Congress to the streets of Seoul and other East Asian cities, reaction to the historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea ranged from deep skepticism to confusion to guarded optimism.

In Washington, lawmakers from both parties, deeply mistrustful of a leader who has brutalized his own country, greeted the leaders’ joint agreement coolly on Tuesday, with some warning Trump that any final accord on Kim’s nuclear program should be submitted to the Senate for ratification.

Even some Republicans who have largely declined to challenge the president as he has veered outside normal foreign policy lanes said it was unclear what, if anything, had been gained by the United States in exchange for the benefits accrued to Kim.

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“While I am glad the president and Kim Jong Un were able to meet, it is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred,” Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a notably brief statement.

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Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an on-and-off ally of Trump and one of the Senate’s leading Republican foreign policy hawks, called the talks a good “first step,” but little more.

Graham and others insisted the president would need their signoff on any deal, though Republican leaders who control the Senate were silent on whether they would demand that the president seek the chamber’s advice and consent.

“They’ve promised to give up their nuclear weapons; they’ve done this twice,” Graham said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” referring to earlier negotiations between the two nations by past presidents.

The skepticism stood in marked contrast to comments by Trump, who told reporters the two leaders had “decided to leave the past behind” and predicted that soon “the world will see a major change.”

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Details of the summit meeting, transmitted from Singapore to anxious lawmakers in Washington overnight, were scarce on Tuesday beyond the joint statement released by the two nations and subsequent comments by Trump. The statement said Trump had promised security for North Korea in exchange for Kim’s commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Trump also told reporters the United States would suspend joint military exercises with South Korean forces.

Democrats were far harsher in their assessment of Trump, saying he had been played by the North Korean leader.

“By granting a meeting with Chairman Kim, President Trump has granted a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “The symbols that were broadcast all over the world last night have lasting consequences for the United States and North Korea and for the entire region.”

For South Koreans who have long felt threatened by the threat of nuclear war, seeing Trump and Kim shake hands and sign an agreement on improving ties brought relief.

But the optimism was quickly tempered by Trump’s stunning decision to halt the military exercises, which he revealed hours after the summit.

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The North has cited military drills between the United States and South Korea as a prime example of US hostility, calling them rehearsals for invasion. Washington and Seoul have always dismissed such accusations as propaganda.

Trump’s decision apparently blindsided South Korea. The office of President Moon Jae-in and the Defense Ministry in Seoul said they were scrambling to “figure out the exact meaning and intentions in President Trump’s comments.”

Ending the joint military exercises could help Kim persuade his people, especially hard-line generals, to agree to denuclearize and focus on building the country’s poor economy, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. Still, Trump’s announcement stunned many South Koreans.

Their government has always considered the US military presence and the joint drills integral parts of the region’s security, regardless of the North’s nuclear intentions.

Many South Koreans and Japanese fear that North Korea and China will turn talks over denuclearizing the North into regional disarmament negotiations aimed at undermining the US military influence in Northeast Asia.

Still, South Korea’s President Moon heralded the summit as a success that has established a path for peace. In a statement, Moon praised the summit as a ‘‘great victory achieved by both the United States and the two Koreas.’’

China saw its preferred approach to US-North Korean relations spelled out virtually intact in the Trump-Kim statement. Beijing got everything it wanted, wrote Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in an e-mail. By halting military exercises with South Korea, Trump ‘‘removed a major irritant for Beijing,’’ he wrote.

‘‘I expect Beijing sees itself as a big winner,’’ he continued. ‘‘But I also suspect that some in China are nervous about the United States and North Korea getting too close.’’

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.