Trump acknowledged that he didn’t dwell on North Korea’s human-rights abuses during the summit, though he claimed to have raised the issue. (Human rights are “rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there,” he said.) He entertained plans to invite Kim Jong Un to the White House and travel to Pyongyang at the “appropriate time.” (It’s “a little bit early” to discuss normalizing diplomatic relations, he added.) And he remarked admiringly that Kim was clearly “very talented,” since he took over North Korea in his 20s and ran it “tough.” (Kim operates a sprawling network of political prison camps and is believed to have executed political opponents with anti-aircraft machine guns and chemical weapons.)
Trump also moved away from National-Security Adviser John Bolton’s vision of rapid denuclearization and toward North Korea’s view of denuclearization as a lengthy process, noting that “scientifically, I’ve been watching and reading a lot about this, and it does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization.” Nevertheless, he asserted that “we will do it as fast as it can mechanically and physically be done.” Of course, this could be interpreted less as a concession to North Korea than as a concession to the reality of the North’s elaborate nuclear infrastructure; Siegfried Hecker, a leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, recently estimated that disarming the country could take 10 to 15 years.
Trump didn’t cite much concrete evidence for why he feels these nuclear negotiations with North Korea will produce a different outcome than the last 25 years of inconclusive talks—that the North is really prepared this time to relinquish the nuclear arsenal that it has spent decades building as a security blanket, at tremendous cost. “My whole life has been deals, I’ve done great at it,” Trump noted, and his instincts within seconds of meeting Kim were that “I think he wants to make a deal.”
There were, however, fleeting moments of self-doubt. “Can you ensure anything? Can I ensure that you’re going to be able to sit down properly when you sit down?” Trump asked one reporter who had stood up to ask him a question about Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. “I think he’ll do it—I really believe that. … I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
And Trump was particularly sober in reflecting on what might be his greatest accomplishment in Singapore: averting a military conflict that he himself had once threatened and launching a diplomatic process that still has the potential to yield a settlement to the North Korean nuclear crisis. In seeking a transformation of U.S.-North Korea relations, which will require years to forge and more than a brief statement to formalize, Trump may be starting something of great consequence, even if it doesn’t look that way now. “If I can save millions of lives by coming here, sitting down, and establishing a relationship with someone who’s a very powerful man, who’s got firm control of a country, and that country has very powerful nuclear weapons, it’s my honor to do it,” Trump said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make the world a safer place.”