US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to a second summit meeting, to be held in late February, a move that aims to rekindle what many see as an initially hopeful but now stalled dialogue process on Korean Peninsula denuclearization.
The White House announcement came after a 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office between Trump and Kim Yong-chol, a former North Korean intelligence chief who serves as Kim’s top nuclear negotiator, according to news reports.
A date and the location for the meeting was not announced, suggesting that the two sides were still seeking concessions from one another or were still negotiating the summit’s site. Vietnam, Thailand and Hawaii have all been mentioned as potential places for the meeting.
The first Trump-Kim summit was held with much media fanfare in Singapore, which held the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the time.
Vietnam is speculated as a potential meeting site as the communist nation maintains strong ties with Pyongyang and Washington. Thailand currently holds ASEAN’s chair and an official in Bangkok confirmed to Asia Times that country was being considered and that tentative preparations were being made to host the meeting.
The US said it would keep sanctions in place against North Korea in the lead-up to the summit and until Pyongyang surrenders its nuclear arsenal. North Korea has pressed for a formal end to the Korean War and for the US to remove its troops stationed in South Korea as a condition for any deal.
No concessions have been made on either front by either side, but the urgency of the disarmament issue has eased somewhat as both leaders have turned down substantially their previous strident rhetoric that had raised fears of armed hostilities and a possible nuclear exchange. The US and North Korea are still technically at war, dating back to the 1950-53 Korean War.
News reports noted there have been no substantive working-level negotiations between the two sides since last autumn. North Korea has also backed away from an apparent commitment, announced in October by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to allow international inspectors into a nuclear test site Pyongyang had dismantled.
Issues of inspection are expected to feature in the next summit meeting, as will a potential freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear fuel and weapons production while negotiations with the US are ongoing.
Previous talks, analysts note, have broken down on the issue of inspections. North Korea was expected after the first summit, held last June, to allow for a detailed inventory to be taken of its nuclear arsenal, believed to include anywhere between 20 to 60 indigenously produced bombs, their locations as well as a list of its missiles and missile launchers.
That hasn’t happened, due in part that any such inventory could be used as a targeting list if talks broke down and Trump ordered a pre-emptive strike. Critics of Trump’s gambit believe Pyongyang is playing a long game to ease previous strong US pressure under Trump, with an eye towards the eventual end of the 72-year-old’s presidency.
With the various issues Trump now confronts in Washington, including a weeks-long federal government shutdown and a closely watched investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia, it’s not clear the White House will give the second summit the same priority it gave the first.
Despite those caveats and risks, South Korea welcomed the second summit’s announcement, with a government spokesman saying he expected the meeting to be “a turning point for solidifying a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” news reports said.
China is also believed to tacitly support a next summit. Kim made a surprise three day visit to Beijing earlier this month, signaling that his regime is consulting closely with China as it moves to engage with the US.
Trump has previously complained that China is pulling strings from behind the scenes and pushing Pyongyang to drive for a hard bargain on denuclearization. His high optic symbolic visit came as the US and China are engaged in tentative talks to end an escalating trade war.