Road from Singapore: The ticking nuclear countdown clock has stopped

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The road from Singapore becomes a longer process as substance and specifics must follow the highly stylistic Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un. Nonetheless given the state of U.S./North Korean relations just six moths ago, the historic meeting between an American President and a DPRK Chairman became an unexpected diplomatic tour de force on a global stage.

What is being described as “history with a handshake” between the two longtime antagonists saw both leaders produce a broad brush, if not very detailed, agreement which charts a bold new course in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. The deal notably does not open formal diplomatic relations, outline a Peace Treaty ending the Korean War, nor list a timetable for complete and verifiable disarmament.

U.S. President Donald Trump with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un on June 12, 2018. / Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un on June 12, 2018. / Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the Summit a “promising development.”

Yet hours before the meeting, Guterres advised, “The two leaders are seeking to break out of a dangerous cycle that created so much concern last year referring to tightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” The Secretary General stressed, “Peace and verifiable denuclearization must remain the clear and shared goal.”

The Joint Statement outlined, “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” It equally raised the long forgotten issue of U.S. Missing in Action (MIA) soldiers remains from the Korean War (1950-1953), there were no specifics or timetables.

Significantly the suspension of U.S./South Korean military exercises was a major concession by Donald Trump. But what of human rights concessions by the communist DPRK? And the signing of a Peace Treaty ending the Korean War?

But as expected “the devil is in the details” to quote the old adage.

Harry Kazianis, a North Korean expert at the Center for the National Interest warned, “For Washington there is a relatively easy way for America to hold North Korea to the pledges it made today in a Joint Statement, which looks like past joint statements and aspirational promises of the past: give North Korea thirty days to cut a deal on its nuclear arms abandonment.”

Kazianis counsels that the U.S. must make certain that North Korea does not “implement its old diplomatic playbook in stalling for time and negotiating for months or years over the details of the nuclear program.”

Importantly the UN economic sanctions on North Korea shall stay in place despite what are expected to be strong pressures by China to loosen or suspend the measures.

Despite the political afterglow of the meeting, the Secretary General reminds us that the DPRK still faces a dire humanitarian situation where the UN estimates that more that ten million people, or forty percent of the population, require food assistance.

But there are other images too which were shattered in a few short days in Singapore. The specter of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its mercurial Marxist Chairman as a land shrouded in the mist of the Hermit Kingdom, was thrust into the bright light and global legitimacy. This was not a closed meeting in Beijing’s Forbidden City or even the historic handshake in the DMZ’s Panmunjom between both Korean states, but an unprecedented profile, stature and legitimacy for Pyongyang on an international stage.

Interestingly American social media on both sides of the U.S. political divide was very critical and decidedly uncomfortable with the intermixing of the flags of both the USA/DPRK on the same podium. Equally there’s healthy bipartisan skepticism over the new bonhommerie between the U.S. President and the DPRK dictator. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) calls for specifics on the denuclearization and for transparency on North Korean human rights issues.

Nonetheless the road to tropical Singapore and the unexpected Summit actually started in the Cold and snowy hills of Korea and the PyeongChang Winter Olympics which broke the political ice between both South and North Korea and opened the way for the Trump Administration to change political tact from confrontation with the North to a hopeful diplomatic path. The Olympic effect should not be discounted in this extraordinary round of diplomacy.

Remember the rhetoric between the USA/DPRK one year and even six months ago?

Despite genuine political concerns and cumbersome details over the denuclearization process, the key success in Singapore was that the ticking nuclear countdown clock has now at least temporarily stopped.

In a buoyant Trump press conference the President stressed, “They want to make a deal.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]