Taking place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27-28, the second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un is fast approaching. What can we expect from this next meeting? What have negotiations led to so far? Alec Forss, of ISDP’s Korea Center, answers some of the key questions surrounding the expectations and realities of the upcoming summit.
The summit could have been in any number of places, including Mongolia, Singapore again, or at Panmunjom in the DMZ between the two Koreas. Nonetheless, Vietnam is a convenient location for the summit given that North Korea has an embassy in Hanoi and longstanding diplomatic relations with the country. More symbolically, Vietnam’s experience in recent decades could prove instructive for North Korea.
A one-time adversary of the United States, both countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1995. Despite maintaining a communist one-party system, Vietnam has experienced rapid economic growth and largely managed to balance its relations between China and the United States. Vietnam could therefore potentially be a desirable development model to follow given that Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s Speech emphasized North Korea’s economic modernization.
However, the location of the summit is less important than what it will achieve, or not as the case may be.
How much progress has been made since the last summit?
Publicly, President Trump has been keen to emphasize the “tremendous progress” made since the first summit in June in Singapore. Often touted is that North Korea has not conducted any more nuclear or long-range missile tests, has released hostages, and returned a set of remains of American soldiers missing from the Korean War. For its part, the United States has not resumed large-scale military exercises with South Korea – long a bone of contention for Pyongyang.
But while relations have been relatively peaceable, there has been little progress made on implementing the main commitments from the first summit, which include complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations, and the establishment of a peace regime.
Having taken steps to dismantle its main nuclear testing ground and a missile test site, North Korea demands that it is the U.S.’ turn to reciprocate. However, Washington has so far insisted that Pyongyang should first undertake more significant denuclearization measures before concessions are granted. In sum, both sides had largely reached a stalemate before the announcement of the second summit in Vietnam.
What do both sides want?
The U.S. demands that North Korea undertakes what it calls final, fully verified denuclearization, which essentially amounts to it relinquishing all weapons of mass destruction as well as the means to produce and deliver them. This is also mandated under UN Security Council resolutions. The U.S. has insisted on a full and correct declaration of all of North Korea’s nuclear-related facilities as well as stringent international inspections to verify their existence and dismantlement.
North Korea has variously demanded a lifting of sanctions, a peace agreement, as well as security assurances such as stopping joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and the introduction of nuclear-capable assets to the Korean Peninsula, which it regards as part of the U.S. “hostile policy” towards it.
However, there are significant question marks over whether both sides share a common definition of what precisely denuclearization or a peace regime entails, as well as differences in position on how steps towards such should be sequenced.
What are the expectations this time round?
It depends who you ask and what your expectations are.
Given the relative lack of detailed, rigorous working-level negotiations and the gap between the two sides, it is inconceivable that there will be any “final deal” that resolves all the issues.
In fact, many, including the U.S. intelligence community, are skeptical of North Korea’s sincerity regarding complete denuclearization. The new head of the Democrat-controlled House Foreign Relations Committee, Eliot Engel, has welcomed talks but cautioned that the U.S. must be clear-eyed about North Korea’s intentions. Given past history and the acute lack of trust, North Korea would have similar doubts about U.S. intentions. Such suspicions will surely continue to factor into any assessment of the outcome from the summit.
But realizing the complexities of the issues involved, many will at least be hopeful that progress towards each side’s long-term goals can be made. Keen to demonstrate a foreign policy success amidst domestic turmoil, the Trump administration seems to have shifted its stance somewhat. In a recent wide-ranging speech on U.S. policy, special nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun, who has been closely involved in preparations for the summit, stated that it was not the case that the U.S. “would do nothing” until North Korea “did everything.” He also appeared to more closely align with China and South Korea’s support for a parallel track approach whereby full denuclearization and peace treaty are end goals and not starting points. That North Korea also favors a phased action-for-action approach perhaps bodes well that a degree of middle ground can be found among all parties.
The last summit resulted in what was largely an aspirational, albeit vague, vision statement with no timeframe or action plan on how commitments would be implemented. General opinion this time round is that any agreement will have to have “more meat” and detail some concrete steps if it is to pass any test of scrutiny.
What will both sides agree to?
We don’t know for sure.
In terms of the potential trade-offs, while North Korea is unlikely to offer up a list of facilities, it may be willing to disable its Yongbyon nuclear reactor – as it indicated in the Pyongyang Declaration signed between the two Koreas last September – and allow international nuclear inspectors to re-enter the country after an absence of a decade. Verifying a freeze of the production of fissile material for nuclear bombs would likely be a minimum step for the U.S. from this summit, as well as monitoring the closure of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site.
In exchange, the United States could potentially agree to provide a humanitarian aid package and even entertain certain sanctions waivers to allow certain inter-Korean cooperation projects, such as the Mt. Kumgang tourism resort, to resume. An end of war declaration could also be announced, though its implications would depend on the details and questionable if South Korea and China are not also signatories. Additionally, restating some of the commitments from the last summit and pledging to undertake further steps in this regard could constitute another point of agreement.
An unknown factor is whether Trump may concede more to North Korea – such as reducing U.S. troop presence in South Korea – as he did at the previous summit when, to much surprise, he announced the cancellation of military exercises.