'Now the real work begins:' Experts weigh in on Trump-Kim nuclear pledge

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed an agreement on Tuesday committing the two leaders to establishing new ties "in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity."
  • Experts say the next steps in the negotiating process will be key to the implementation.
  • "It is the steps that follow — or lack thereof — that will determine if this meeting was a success or failure," Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told CNBC.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018.
Anthony Wallace | Pool | Reuters

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a deal on Tuesday committing the two leaders to establishing new ties "in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity."

The agreement, which the two leaders signed at the historic nuclear summit in Singapore, has been criticized for being short on detail. Among the four points the two leaders agreed to was the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," which experts have said has a different meaning to North Koreans than it does to Americans.

But experts say the next steps in the negotiating process will be key to the deal's implementation.

More coverage on the Trump-Kim nuclear summit:
Read the full text of the Trump-Kim agreement here
Trump says North Korea will keep its promises, and the US will stop war games
US stock futures flat after Trump-Kim summit ends

"It is the steps that follow — or lack thereof — that will determine if this meeting was a success or failure," Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told CNBC.

YJ Fischer, who worked on nuclear weapons policy at the State Department under former President Barack Obama, said, "The most important thing is what comes next."

Below, 14 experts weigh in.

Catherine Dill, senior research associate, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
"The most important thing to consider is that working out the details is the hardest part. The 4-point agreement is quite vague, likely intentionally, and now the crucial part that comes next is developing an implementation plan with concrete steps. Supposedly Pompeo and Bolton will continue to meet with North Korean officials in coming weeks to work out the details. After Trump's remarks in the press conference about suspending U.S.-ROK exercises, the U.S. will need to carefully manage the alliance relationship with Seoul as well."

R. Scott Kemp, director of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy
"This is a perfect outcome. While some may complain that the agreement is devoid of actionable substance — this is fine. Neither Trump nor Kim were in a position to discuss details. A realistic agreement will probably take years to hash out, as there is much to learn about North Korea's program first. The Trump-Kim statement of principles is exactly what is needed to get started."

Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association
"The document Trump and Kim signed is a mediocre reiteration of North Korea's past commitments to denuclearize. It is far too soon to characterize this vague, aspirational pledge as a success or a failure. The critical question is what comes next? It is imperative that this summit is not a one-off meeting and that it jump starts a process that trades concrete actions to reduce and roll back North Korea's nuclear program in return for security assurances. In the follow-on negotiations, the Trump administration should focus on closing the gap between the United States and North Korea on the definition of denuclearization and laying out specific, verifiable steps that Pyongyang will take to reduce the threat posed by its nuclear weapons. It is the steps that follow — or lack thereof — that will determine if this meeting was a success or failure."

Steve Andreasen, the director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001
"The Trump-Kim summit, along with renewed North-South diplomacy, has at least given pause to war. We can always hope for more and more faster, but the reality of where we are today with North Korea is simply this: A new process of dialogue and negotiation will take time. It will be fluid and unpredictable. We will learn more as negotiations unfold that will inform our judgments about what can and cannot be achieved. More likely than not, there will be agreements in stages — and in each case, more than one way to achieve our vital interests, including diluting North Korea's threat to the U.S., South Korea and Japan and avoiding a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula."

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
"I support diplomacy to reduce the risk of a war, and I would much rather that Trump and Kim exchange civil words rather than nuclear threats. That said, this summit was a farce. The language on denuclearization was weaker than in previous agreements involving North Korea, and Trump appears to have made significant concessions on US-ROK joint exercises without getting anything concrete in return."

Steven Pifer, nonresident senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution
"This was a good summit for Mr. Kim. He got a sit-down with the American president and, apparently, a suspension of military exercises. Whether this was a good summit for Mr. Trump and for U.S. security interests depends on future steps. Mr. Kim committed 'to work toward' complete denuclearization if the Korean Peninsula. What that means in reality remains to be seen."

Togzhan Kassenova, Nuclear Policy Program fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
"When you strip all the theatrics, there is not much substance to celebrate. Only if the follow-on engagement results in something tangible – North Korea's firm commitment to denuclearization, ways to verify it, and a strict timeline with the milestones, would we be able to say the summit was worth it. As of this very moment, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has a reason to feel pleased with the summit. President Trump doesn't."

Sergey Radchenko, professor of international relations at Cardiff University
"For the moment I think there's too much excitement here for no good reasons. Of course it's great that the two leaders have met ... But in the long term I would say that trust in North Korea to fulfill its obligations or to stick to the letter of agreement is not a very reliable prospect."

YJ Fischer, former assistant coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation at the State Department
"I think the most important thing for readers to be considering going forward is that this was the first step in what is going to be a long process.The vagueness of the statement signed by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un indicates just how much work there is still is to be done. The two sides still need to agree on principles of disarmament, a timetable for implementation, and stringent verification measures -- or put another way, all the hard work remains to be done.

"The fact that so little was achieved is OK. Diplomatic processes such as these take time. President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev took three years and three high-level summits to reach an arms control agreement. President Nixon's meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong was important but it took six more years until relations were normalized with China.

"The most important thing is what comes next. It would be a mistake to rush to schedule a White House level summit between Trump and Kim anytime soon. Instead Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should continue the meetings at his level to reach agreement around the key issues. The Pompeo level meetings don't need to solve everything but the next time Trump and Kim meet there should be a greater foundation for the framework of an arms control agreement.

"The Trump administration should also use this time to work closely with the players in the region, including Japan and especially China and South Korea. Trump touted the success of his 'maximum pressure.' Well the era of maximum pressure is over because China and South Korea want reduced tensions and greater economic collaboration with North Korea. If Trump changes his tune on North Korea, he is unlikely to have China and South Korea with him. That's why it's essential that Trump ensures the three countries stay closely aligned."

Laicie Heeley, editor-in-chief of foreign policy magazine Inkstick, and host of the podcast Things That Go Boom
"The summit was an exercise in pageantry that one can only hope will lead to meaningful progress down the road. At this point, unfortunately, the Kim regime has not agreed to additional concessions, leaving the details of its previously stated commitment to 'denuclearization' to be worked out down the road. And while both leaders will tout the success of the summit at home, Kim walks away at a clear advantage, having met as a nuclear-armed equal with the president of the United States and been guaranteed a 'freeze for freeze' agreement the U.S. had previously eschewed. That said, Trump didn't give up the farm, as many feared he would. While his characterization of joint military exercises as 'provocative' was unnecessary and plays, once again, into Kim's narrative, the step to freeze such exercises is easily reversed. For now, the two countries remain engaged in amicable diplomacy, which is far preferable to talk of 'fire and fury' and 'dotards' on Twitter.

"Now, the real work begins. Trump and Kim have agreed only in principle to real progress. First and foremost, the two leaders must agree to a clear, shared, and detailed definition of denuclearization. Diplomacy is a long, hard path, but worth the effort. I hope to see the Trump administration continue to engage in a constructive way."

Frank N. von Hippel, senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security
"There is not much for a nonproliferation expert to say yet because there are no specifics, but I am glad we are negotiating rather than making nuclear threats.

"I do think that a deal is possible but also that it will be a long time before we see the DPRK fully eliminate its nuclear and missile capabilities.

"That is not a technical judgement – technically it could be done relatively rapidly with full DPRK cooperation – but politically, DPRK's nuclear capability is its main asset and it is hard to see it giving that away before there are a lot of other changes.

"In that regard, I think that suspending the annual US-ROK wargames is a good move on Trump's part. Those games were very aggressive and included nuclear threats. We can maintain readiness in less scary ways."

Sharon Squassoni, former director of policy coordination in the State Department's Nonproliferation Bureau
"The statement gets the relationship off the ground. Secretary Pompeo and his North Korean counterparts will take up four baskets of issues in the future: diplomatic relations, security and peace on the Peninsula, denuclearization and efforts to recover POW/MIA remains. Trump and Kim made personal commitments to security assurances and denuclearization but the statement didn't say how, why or when.

"There was no reference to a peace treaty, which will be a tricky effort, but it will likely be part of the follow-on negotiations. And, there was no reference to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Thankfully, this suggests a more practical approach to reducing the risks from Kim's nuclear weapons. However, the linkage of denuclearization to the Kim-Moon summit document could mean that the United States might be kept at arms-length in that process. Of course, South Korea has to play a key role in building peace and security on the Korean peninsula, but the nuclear weapons that Kim worries about are American."

Eunjung Lim, assistant professor at the College of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University
"The statement was reaffirming the Panmunjon Declaration [between North and South Korea], and explicitly clarifies the DPRK as the subject who should commit to work towards 'complete' denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since the 1992 Joint Declaration of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has removed every nuclear weapon, which means that the remaining task is for North Korea. That is why, I think, this specific sentence is tremendously important."

Richard Nephew, adjunct professor and senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy
"Setting aside the implications of Trump's apparent decision to cancel future U.S.-ROK military exercises due to their 'provocative' nature and expense, the summit largely conformed to my expectations.

"One fear I had in advance of the summit was that Trump and Kim would commit to continue negotiating directly at their level, which would have created the real risk of inadvisable U.S. concessions with respect to the technical aspects of the DPRK nuclear program. Consequently, the most important element of the statement that Trump and Kim signed was the delegation to Pompeo and 'a relevant high-level DPRK official' to continue the negotiations, ensuring that there will be a reversion to more technical and detailed talks.

"Any realistic resolution to the DPRK nuclear and missile threat will require complex negotiations regarding any restrictions and dismantlement activity to be undertaken, verification measures, and sanctions relief.

"This will take time and the process needs political space in both countries. The tasks now, especially in light of the exercises decision and de facto moratorium on new sanctions, are all reassurance and coordination on the content of the actual agreement to be negotiated. This is the most important next step, since the exercise decision and its casual, offhand announcement are going to terrify our allies in the region and beyond."

— CNBC's Weizhen Tan and Yen Nee Lee contributed to this report.