WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that the Trump administration hopes to complete “major disarmament” of North Korea within the next 2½ years, even as conflicting accounts of discussions between the two sides left unclear what had actually been agreed to.
A day after President Trump’s landmark meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore, the two leaders and their governments sought to shape the understanding of their talks to their advantage. But the contours of the vague agreement remained unclear and open to divergent interpretations.
North Korea’s state-controlled news media said that Mr. Trump had agreed to a phased, “step by step” denuclearization process rather than the immediate dismantling of its nuclear capability, with the United States providing reciprocal benefits at each stage along the way. Mr. Trump has previously insisted that he will not lift sanctions until North Korea has rid itself of its nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration, for its part, insisted that the general wording of the joint statement signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim committed North Korea to an intrusive inspection regime to confirm its “complete denuclearization.” The statement itself, however, did not explicitly use the words “verifiable” or “irreversible” that had been part of the mantra of American officials leading up to the Singapore summit meeting.
“Let me assure you that the ‘complete’ encompasses ‘verifiable’ in the minds of everyone concerned,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters in Seoul, where he flew to consult with South Korean officials. “One can’t completely denuclearize without validating, authenticating — you pick the word.”
When a reporter pressed and asked for more details about how it would be verified, Mr. Pompeo grew testy. “I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo indicated that Mr. Trump hoped to get the major steps of denuclearization in place before his term ends in January 2021. “Most certainly in the president’s first term,” he said. “You used the term ‘major disarmament,’ something like that? Yes, we’re hopeful that we can achieve that in the next, what is it, two and a half years, something like that.”
The president himself did not dwell on the details as he landed back in Washington early Wednesday morning. Instead, he claimed a sweeping achievement even before any of the details have been worked out.
“Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
“Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea,” he added. “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer — sleep well tonight!”
He claimed that there was no longer a nuclear threat even though North Korea has not given up any of its weapons or dismantled any of its 141 known nuclear facilities other than blowing up a test site. Mr. Trump’s assertion drew derision from critics who accused him of getting way ahead of what could be a long, difficult negotiation to translate the gauzy aspiration of Singapore into a workable plan.
“What planet is the president on?” asked Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader. “Saying it doesn’t make it so. North Korea still has nuclear weapons. It still has ICBMs. It still has the United States in danger. Somehow President Trump thinks when he says something it becomes reality. If it were only that easy, only that simple.”
Lawmakers and allies alike were left trying to discern what exactly Mr. Trump agreed to and how the follow-up negotiations would proceed. Mr. Pompeo planned to brief South Korean officials who were caught off guard to learn that the president had agreed to suspend joint military exercises in a significant concession to North Korea.
“The critical question is what comes next?” said Kelsey Davenport, nonproliferation policy director at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “The true test of success is whether the follow-on negotiations can close the gap between the United States and North Korea on the definition of denuclearization and lay out specific, verifiable steps that Pyongyang will take to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear weapons.”
If the talks in Singapore on Tuesday gave Mr. Trump an opportunity to play the diplomat on a grand scale, they did no less for Mr. Kim, whose country has long sought such a meeting with an American president. The state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun plastered the pages of its Wednesday edition with color photographs of Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump talking, walking and smiling, apparently as equals, with the flags of the two countries arranged side by side as a backdrop.
Only after the signing ceremony did it emerge that more commitments had apparently been made than were listed in the joint statement. In a post-summit news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Trump announced that the United States would end joint military exercises with its South Korean allies, which Pyongyang has long denounced as rehearsals for an invasion of the North. The news appeared to catch both the South Korean government and the United States military off guard.
On Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in in Seoul appeared to endorse Mr. Trump’s decision. “While North Korea and the United States are engaged in sincere talks on denuclearization and relations-building, we recognize the need to find various options to smooth such dialogue,” said a spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Mr. Trump had agreed to “lift sanctions” once bilateral relations improve. Mr. Trump had said on Tuesday that the sanctions would stay in place until North Korea dismantled enough of its nuclear program to make it difficult to reverse course. Mr. Trump said the denuclearization process would begin “very soon” and happen “very quickly.”
But the North Korean news agency said the two leaders had agreed to a phased process in which Pyongyang would bargain away its nuclear arsenal in stages, securing matching actions from the United States at each step. Such a process has been opposed by American hard-liners like John R. Bolton, now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, who has argued in the past that the North must quickly dismantle and ship out its nuclear weapons program in its entirety, as Libya did more than a decade ago.
“Kim Jong-un and Trump had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the Korean Central News Agency said.
Mr. Pompeo declined to discuss the North Korean report. “I’m going to leave the content of our discussions as between the two parties, but one should heavily discount some things that are written in other places,” he said.
To some, including Mr. Moon, the South Korean leader, the summit meeting was a success even if many questions remained unanswered. Mr. Moon and others saw it as the clearest signal yet that the two countries were walking away from the brink of war and were willing to take bold steps to end decades of hostility.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests, released three American hostages and disabled its only known nuclear test site. Mr. Kim agreed on Tuesday to help the United States find and bring home the remains of Americans from major Korean War battle sites in the North.
But the agreement signed on Tuesday lacks any detail on the central issue, denuclearization, raising fears among analysts that once negotiators wade into the specifics, the talks could end in stalemate, as they have after past nuclear disarmament accords. South Korean officials hope that the two strong-willed leaders will push the process ahead, with an eye on their legacies.
Mr. Kim needs to improve ties with Washington and lift sanctions if he wants to keep his promise to develop North Korea’s economy. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly boasted that he would resolve a problem his predecessors could not. He appears to believe that his willingness to engage the once-hermetic Mr. Kim in the global spotlight will encourage him to shed his isolation and denuclearize.
Mr. Trump has recently acknowledged that denuclearization could take time, but he appears eager for it to start quickly. He said on Tuesday that Mr. Kim had promised to dismantle a facility for testing missile engines. In an interview with ABC News, Mr. Trump also said North Korea planned to “get rid of certain ballistic missile sites and various other things.” As of Wednesday, there had been no announcement from North Korea about removing such facilities.
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul.
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.