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The only certainty about Trump-Kim summit is uncertainty

President Trump landed in Singapore’s on Sunday, hoping to replace the frostiness of the G-7 meeting by making history with one of the world’s most isolated dictators. On Tuesday, Trump will meet with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, who until six months ago had never met with a single foreign leader. NewsHour's Nick Schifrin, who is reporting from Singapore, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Good evening and thanks for joining us. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are now in Singapore just hours away from their historic meeting. Enemies for decades, the two countries leaders have never met face to face. And this all happens just as the president has added new tension to relations with the leaders of the historically friendly nations in the G-7. Security is intense — there's no access to the actual summit site, but the world is watching as NewsHour foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, reports from Singapore.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Tonight President Trump landed in Singapore's humidity, hoping to replace the frostiness of the G7 meeting by making history with one of the world's most isolated dictators. A few hours earlier, Kim Jong Un's black, bulletproof limo escorted him through the shutdown streets of this city-state. Amid a media frenzy, Kim Jong Un arrived in his downtown Singapore hotel with a massive convoy. Kim spent some time overseas when he was younger, but he's never traveled this far as North Korean leader and he's never traveled while the world was watching. Everywhere Kim went, the tourists and the cameras followed: an evening drive through Singapore with a running escort from a phalanx of bodyguards and a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Six months ago, Kim had never met a single foreign leader. He's met a handful just in the last few weeks, which is why many believe even before the summit begins, Kim has gained his coveted legitimacy. Bob Menendez is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • BOB MENENDEZ:

    To the extent that Kim Jong Un has already gone from international pariah to being normalized internationally — you have to say that he's had some success here.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The summit will happen here, off the island of Singapore on the island of Sentosa, known as a tourist playground with giant statues sprouting from theme parks. And at this Sentosa hotel where the summit will take place, only a small sign hinting at the site's critical importance. For the last 25 years, the U.S. and North Korea have alternated negotiations and threats of war over North Korea's nuclear program.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

  • KIM JONG UN:

    The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons. Can a nuclear button is always on my desk.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    But during decades of diplomacy, there's never been a meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. North Korea has also never had a missile that could reach as far into the U.S. or a nuclear weapon as viable or as large as it does today. U.S. officials admit they still don't know whether Kim is willing to give up his nuclear weapons or what the U.S. will have to exchange. Yesterday, President Trump said he would know "instantly" what would happen and that it was now or never.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    Kim Jong Un wants to do something great for his people and he has that opportunity and he won't have that opportunity again. It's never going to be there again.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Also on the table, ending the Korean War 65 years after the armistice. With so much on the line, President Trump has dreamed big, but yesterday tried to lower expectations.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    But at a minimum, I do believe at least we'll have met each other, we will have seen each other, hopefully we will have liked each other, and we'll start that process.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Which means 36 hours before it begins, the only certainty about this summit is the uncertainty.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And Nick Schifrin joins us now from Singapore. Nick, first of all, why Singapore?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Hari, in part because nothing else was good enough for both sides. They considered the DPRK, the space between South Korea and North Korea, that had just held a summit between North Korean leader and South Korean President Kim Jong Un — Moon Jae-in rather — and so that wasn't acceptable. It had to be regional, so they considered Mongolia, which didn't have the infrastructure. Beijing was out of the question for the Americans. And so, Singapore is considered neutral. They've had relationships with the North Koreans for over four decades, obviously a relationship with the U.S. as well. And it's safe here Hari. This island often hosts summits. The secretary of defense was just here about a week and a half ago. And so both sides felt comfortable coming here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK I know you've been there a little while. What's the security situation like?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Well we can get around pretty easily. We could even go to the island where this summit will take place, which is about a 15-minute drive to the south of us. And we could drive as you saw in that piece, right up to where Kim Jong Un drove into the hotel. So relatively, it's OK today, but everybody is warning that the city will basically be on lockdown whenever the president is moving and Kim Jong Un himself is moving. So we see a lot of security outside the hotels right now, but really the city outside of these little pockets is proceeding normally.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK well what are we likely to see? Obviously there's a lot of emphasis on the moment when President Trump and Kim Jong Un are in the same room or in the same place speaking or meeting. But before that? After that?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    So right now what all the U.S. is saying is that there will be some working groups tomorrow led by Sung Kim who is the ambassador to the Philippines but has been brought into this process because of his long history dealing with the North Koreans. He will meet with his counterpart tomorrow morning, Singapore time. We're probably not going to see that, but at least we know it's happening. Tomorrow afternoon local time, the U.S. promises some kind of briefing about how things are going, presumably in a bit of a preview, for how Tuesday's going. But Hari — on the list, on the schedule, for what's going to happen Tuesday, there's a big TBD on the schedule. We know that the president will meet with Kim Jong Un in the morning but after that, it is really up to the president and both sides. And that really shows the kind of negotiating that the president intends to do here. We heard him in the last couple of days basically say, 'I'm going to know in the first few seconds what's going to happen' and that reveals a substantive point from the U.S. officials that I talked to. They say if they believe that Kim Jong Un is serious about finally denuclearizing, finally turning the page on 25 years of strategy that the North Koreans have effectively avoided denuclearization. If Kim Jong Un is serious — suddenly — about that, this summit will proceed and will be seen as success because the president will allow it to be and they'll go forward. But if they sense that Kim Jong Un isn't as serious, or is going to repeat some of the same mistakes from the past, frankly they say they're prepared to walk out. And that's why it is TBD. U.S. officials admit they simply do not know how this is going to go.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Nick, short of total denuclearization, what else could be achieved here? What else is on the table?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    I think what's on the table is the definition of denuclearization and the definition of peace. So denuclearization in the last few months, the president, the national security adviser have come out and said 'we want instant denuclearization, we want effectively to put the nuclear weapons on ships and take them out.' They have now admitted that that is impossible and simply not feasible. And so they are talking now about how long denuclearization takes and the steps that North Korea has to take in order to prove that it's serious about denuclearization. And then the definition of peace — what does North Korea get in return for that denuclearization? And what stages does that come in? So certainly some of the things that they're going to be talking about? Sanctions relief. That is really what North Korea wants: a relief from some of the sanctions that have increased dramatically in the last year, talking about a long-term normalization, perhaps even an embassy in Pyongyang. They're talking about ending the Korean War and also removing North Korea from the state sponsor list of terrorism. So those are the things that are going to be traded. And again it just shows that the U.S. does not know how this is going to go. It does not know exactly the definitions either of peace or denuclearization just about 36 hours before the summit begins.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right — NewsHour's Nick Schifrin joining us from Singapore tonight. He will be reporting there all week. Thanks so much.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Thanks Hari.

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