The two leaders who made history in Singapore must now follow up with credible action
A denuclearised North Korea just moved a step closer
The meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on Tuesday was more than historic. It was epoch-making. It brought together the leaders of two bitter rivals – one of whom threatened less than a year ago to rain on the other “fire and the fury like the world has never seen” – for a cordial conversation that was inconceivable just a few months ago. More than that, it might also have sown the seeds for a new era – assuming things do not go awry – of a denuclearised Korea. The future envisaged by the two sides was contained in a single sentence in the joint agreement, to which both men put their names: the provision of American “security guarantees” to North Korea in return for the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.
Hours after the summit with Mr Kim, Mr Trump indicated that the real work of arriving at an understanding will begin after the two leaders have left Singapore. “It’s not a big deal to meet”, Mr Trump told a press conference. The destination has been agreed upon; the real journey begins now. A more subdued Mr Kim admitted “there will be challenges ahead”. The first challenge will be overcoming the distrust between Washington and Pyongyang. Anti-Americanism has been a constitutive element of North Korean nationalism ever since war broke out in Korea in 1950. The Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea ever since with an iron fist has sought self-legitimacy by presenting itself as the guardian of the Korean people against the US and the agent of its “imperialism”, South Korea. How detrimental will the sudden embrace of – and concessions to – the US be to the survival prospects of a regime predicated on opposition to it? That question will determine the pace at which Mr Kim proceeds with normalisation.
Mr Kim is unlikely to be enthusiastic about relinquishing the nuclear arsenal at his disposal while American troops, stationed to protect South Korea, remain on the peninsula. Washington, for its part, cannot vacate its bases without shredding its security commitment to South Korea and Japan – especially while Mr Kim is in possession of nuclear weapons. Movement on either side will require trust – and trust takes time to accumulate. Normalisation is a "process', as Mr Trump – who in the past made Pyongyang’s surrender of nuclear weapons the condition of talks – admitted. Wild expectations should be tempered. Yet, after Tuesday, a nuclear-free Korea living in peace and prosperity looks like a more realistic possibility – so long as the two men who made history in Singapore with their unprecedented summit grasp this opportunity to follow it up with credible action.