U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set aside the decades of enmity between their countries for a historic summit Tuesday, but a treacherous path remains before Pyongyang's denuclearization can ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and bring peace in Northeast Asia.
The meeting took place in Singapore after numerous diplomatic twists and turns. That the two leaders agreed to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue is a welcome development. In a joint statement, Trump promised "security guarantees" while Kim "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
The leaders committed to establishing new bilateral relations "in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity" and to building "a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."
Calling the statement "very comprehensive," Trump declared in a news conference after the meeting that "we're prepared to start a new history." Kim said the historic document sweeps away the past and marks a fresh start.
At the news conference, Trump seemed to position the statement as just a first step toward ending the North's nuclear weapons program. Asked about the timetable for denuclearization, the president acknowledged that "it does take a long time" but asserted that "once you start the process, it means it's pretty much over."
Trump expressed interest in a possible future visit to Pyongyang and said he plans to invite Kim to the White House "at the appropriate time."
Yet Kim's promise to work toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula did no more than reaffirm a similar pledge in the Panmunjom Declaration he signed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in after the two met in late April. And though Trump said that he and Kim discussed verification and that the Northern leader would begin denuclearization "right away" after returning home, he provided no specific timetable for the process.
North Korea is taking a few concrete steps in that direction, having demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site ahead of the summit with foreign journalists in attendance. Trump said Kim also pledged to destroy a testing site for missile engines.
But Pyongyang shows no sign of budging from its calls for phased denuclearization in exchange for reciprocal measures such as sanctions relief. The U.S. side has already made one such concession with its offer of security guarantees for Kim's regime. The North seems to have deftly exploited the Trump administration's eagerness for short-term successes ahead of midterm congressional elections in the fall.
Washington must not forget that Pyongyang has broken its word multiple times in the past. North Korea promised to freeze construction and operation of nuclear facilities under the 1994 Agreed Framework with the U.S., and even committed to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" in a 2005 joint statement adopted during six-party talks. The country reneged on both agreements after getting economic support from partners.
The North may be working from the same playbook now, looking to buy time for further nuclear development and coax the U.S. into scaling back military pressure or providing aid.
Washington must use this round of engagement to achieve the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization that it has sought for years. Trump already has promised to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, but the U.S. will need to proceed with greater caution in future talks while gauging Pyongyang's sincerity.
The international community should stay united in applying economic pressure against the North. Concerns remain that countries on friendlier terms with North Korea -- such as China, Russia and South Korea -- may respond to the historic summit by easing up on sanctions.
As for Japan, Trump said he raised the issue of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens with Kim at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's behest. But the matter ultimately can be resolved only through direct talks between the two countries involved.
Abe, during his meeting with Trump last week in Washington, expressed interest in a summit with Kim. Though Tokyo should make every effort to urge a speedy return of all abductees, Pyongyang has not budged from its stance that the issue is already settled. Rashly pursuing dialogue would just give the North an opening to take advantage of Tokyo.
As talks between Washington and Pyongyang progress, economic support eventually will go on the agenda. Such aid is one of Tokyo's few bargaining chips with North Korea as the two nations still have resolve issues stemming from Japan's past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo should capitalize fully on the diplomatic opportunities that come its way while continuing to insist on a comprehensive deal resolving the abduction issue along with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.