The historic summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea is the possible beginning of a significant breakthrough toward a safer world rather than a declarative end of a serious nuclear threat. But the cordial meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un beats the dangerous taunts of threats of nuclear annihilation that they previously exchanged. Now months of hard work are ahead in working out the details of a real agreement.
Trump and Kim met Tuesday in Singapore and signed a joint statement vowing to establish "new relations" that "build a lasting and stable peace" on the Korean peninsula. The North "reaffirmed" an earlier pledge to work toward "complete de-nuclearization" of the region. The statement also directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and high-ranking North Korean officials to hold follow-up talks to work on the specifics.
The statement is short on details and lacks a timetable for reining in the North’s nuclear program. Trump said economic sanctions against the North would remain in place until the regime shows more progress in dismantling its arsenal. But he announced he would halt joint military exercises with South Korea, which the North considers provocative. Officials in South Korea appeared surprised by that announcement, though South Korea aggressively promoted the summit as a step toward peace and national unity.
The road to any real success beyond photo ops will be difficult. The North for decades has lied about the reach of its nuclear program and broken its international commitments. It also views de-nuclearization of the peninsula differently than the United States, linking any dismantling of its weapons systems to cuts in the American security that protects South Korea and Japan. The North also would have to accept international inspectors roaming its facilities. A generic statement from Trump and Kim was the best to hope for from a first meeting, and there is no comparison to the detailed Iran nuclear agreement that the president has ridiculed and canceled. Presumably, the enforcement provisions that this administration would expect in North Korea would be better than those for Iran that Trump panned.
China, the North’s biggest patron, called the summit a success that should clear the way to easing sanctions, but many world leaders were more cautious in their optimism, underscoring instead the value of sustained diplomacy. The United Nations sent the right message by calling on the global community to "seize this momentous opportunity" and by offering the full support of the U.N. system in the monitoring and verifications process.
Trump and Kim broke the ice on a bold diplomatic gamble, and now the real work begins. The administration needs to be clear-eyed about North Korea’s intentions, and the details will ultimately decide whether there can be a viable agreement that erases the North’s nuclear threat as Trump promises. But at least a dialogue has opened, and the atmosphere seems more productive than at any time in recent history. That is no small achievement for two leaders who could have easily retreated to their corners or renewed their dangerous posturing, and it provides some hope that a break in the impasse is possible.