Kim Jong Un had a request. As Donald Trump wooed the North Korean leader inside a former British garrison in Singapore, Kim asked Trump to suspend military exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces on the Korean Peninsula, long a source of concern for Pyongyang’s hair-trigger military. It wasn’t something that had been negotiated by their staffs, and some of Trump’s aides were concerned that the concession would irritate allies. But he calculated that it was worth the risk, and without consulting anyone further, he told Kim on the spot that he’d do it.
It was exactly the kind of shoot-from-the-hip move they hate in the pin-striped confines of the State Department. But the moment was classic Trump. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make the world a safer place,” he said in a press conference after the summit, in response to a question from TIME. “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.”
The war-game concession was just the latest in a series of surprising turns in what may ultimately prove to be a historic moment. Since inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were blocked from visiting North Korean nuclear sites during the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the U.S. and its allies have struggled with the growing threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Multiparty agreements, crippling sanctions and threats of military intervention have failed to prevent the totalitarian state from approaching the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile.
Now, in less than a year, Trump has gone from threatening Kim with annihilation to the first face-to-face talks between a sitting U.S. President and a North Korean leader. The result was mixed. Trump touted his “terrific relationship” with Kim, a verbal promise Kim gave him that he was destroying a missile-engine test site and Kim’s “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump also secured the return of the remains of 5,300 service members who died during the Korean War. But experts pointed out that Kim had made only vague promises of the kind that Pyongyang had violated multiple times before.