Hanoi’s buildings, roadside trees and traffic circles are bedecked with flags and uniforms today as the second-ever North Korea-US summit gets underway in the Vietnamese capital – the flags of North Korea, the US and Vietnam, and the uniforms of countless security personnel from the police and the military.
But while the world looks on in eager anticipation of a breakthrough in North Korea-US relations, expectations for the summit’s outcome are moderate, at best, though there are high hopes for some kind of surprise and a handful of hopeful voices.
Kim arrived on Tuesday morning, while Trump landed on Tuesday evening, but yesterday’s big story was farcical. The White House press pool had established a media center in the same hotel where Kim was staying, which prompted at least one prominent analyst in Seoul to suggest that the media-shy Kim – who has never spoken to foreign media – was preparing to open himself up.
However, the reporters were unceremoniously booted out, which poured cold water on some of the wishful thinking in Seoul.
Today, Trump is scheduled to hold meetings with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary and president of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and also with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The usually jammed and chaotic streets of the city were eerily clear as Trump’s motorcade, escorted by fleets of motorcycle police in mustard-colored jackets, sped the US leader to the talks.
Typically for a leader of North Korea – one of the most opaque states on earth – Kim’s schedule for today remained unclear, even at midday.
However, Kim and Trump are scheduled to meet in the evening. They will hold a 20-minute one-on-one meeting at 6.30pm before a 90-minute dinner at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi Hotel. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will join them, but hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton apparently will not. Kim will be joined by former espionage general Kim Yong Chol, who has acted as Pompeo’s counterpart in negotiations thus far, and an as-yet-undisclosed third party.
The summit proper takes place on Thursday. The big issue is North Korean denuclearization, but peace and security on the Korean peninsula, possibly including some kind of end-of-Korean War agreement, is also part of the mix.
Some form of sanctions relief, which is a key demand for Kim – and also an interest of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made clear his enthusiasm to kick-start inter-Korean economic cooperation – may be on the table. Discussions could also cover the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, possibly liaison offices rather than full embassies.
Many see Hanoi – the capital of a state that once fought against the United States but which now enjoys excellent relations with Washington, and has embraced capitalist-leaning reforms but is still run by a communist government – as a benchmark for North Korea, though experts say their leadership systems are radically different.
In sync with his belief that Kim may be tempted out of the cold and away from nuclear weapons by the promise of economic enrichment, Trump dispatched related communications. “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!” he Tweeted.
A rather different message about Vietnamese state affairs came from Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights defender who goes by the online name “Anh Chi.” Activists have been warned not to visit downtown Hanoi for the entire week and many, including Nguyen, are being tailed all day by plainclothes security, he told Asia Times on Wednesday. “Not only are activists in Hanoi under tight surveillance, but also the ones in Saigon,” he said, using the old name for Ho Chi Minh City as many Vietnamese still do for the southern financial hub.
When it comes to actual negotiations, a former North Korean urged Trump to be cautious.
“Who would say I don’t like peace? Everyone wants peace!” said Kim San-ho, a North Korean who went South during the war and who has lived since in Abai Village, a small community of defectors and their descendants on South Korea’s east coast. “But when we deal with North Korea, I think we need to be cautious. We are not really anticipating any results from the summit.”
North Korea watcher Craig Urquhart, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, had a harder perspective. “Trump is going to fail to get anything substantial from Pyongyang in Vietnam,” he told Asia Times. “North Korea does not play by normal rules… in true gangland fashion, North Korea views offers of goodwill as contemptible weakness in its enemies, something to be manipulated and used, and not as generosity of spirit.”
Despite the apparent chemistry between Kim and Trump and the broad range of negotiating items both sides could place on the agenda, many professional North Korea pundits were not optimistic. “My expectations are low,” said Go Myung-hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute of Policy Studies. “I don’t expect there to be a major breakthrough for either party.”
Dan Pinkston an international relations professor at Troy University, said: “I am downbeat, but hope for the best. I just hope for no damage.”
Choi Jin-wook, an international relations professor at Hankook University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, suggested that summitry trumps tensions, but was unlikely to lead to a permanent solution. “I think this is kind of a partial solution, not a permanent solution, I think they do not want a catastrophe and do not want a disaster, so they want to make progress,” Choi said. “That is better than high tensions in 2017 but not a real solution.”
However, a more substantive outcome from this summit is expected, compared to the vague statement that was issued after their pow-wow in Singapore last June.
“The US is pushing for more concrete results this time, recognizing that Singapore’s joint statement was very vague,” said Chris Green of the International Crisis Group. “I’m inclined to think the relative concreteness of the summit statement will count for a lot… failure would be to tread water.”
Pinkston expects Kim to offer “things that are easily reversible,” adding that a positive outcome should be clearly visible. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, if North Korea wishes to engage and to make significant concessions, or to signal its intentions, all of the institutional arrangements are in place,” he said, referring to the various international nuclear, missile and arms-control bodies that Pyongyang could deliver its intentions to.
Akira Kawasaki, a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ steering group, said the long-term aim should remain total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But, as a baby step, he urged North Korea to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. “That is really possible, as they have already said they will not conduct further tests,” he said.
However, Asan Institute’s Go believes that Trump’s dilution of the long-standing US position means North Korea can realistically work toward being a recognized nuclear state and that there will not be total denuclearization.
“I propose that we have already failed as the whole process has become a fiasco: there is no roadmap, no inspection [of sites], no parties seem interested in this, including the South Koreans,” he said. “We’ve already given up on CVID [Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement of nuclear facilities] and that is failure.”
Still, there were some positive voices in Hanoi.
Congress pushing to end the war?
Christine Ahn, the founder of peace activist group Women Cross DMZ, told Asia Times that a least a dozen US Congresspeople will put forward a resolution on Wednesday asking Trump to officially declare an end to the Korean War and to negotiate a peace agreement.
“The key point of the resolution is declaring an end to the Korean War and that it’s not just the president doing that, it’s the most representative body of the American people,” Ahn said. “It urges the President to begin the process, the process towards negotiation of a peace agreement.”
Given the time difference between the US and Vietnam, that resolution could be passed in the US before or during Kim and Trump’s talks on Thursday, Vietnam-time. In 2015, Women Cross DMZ crossed from North Korea into South Korea via the truce village of Panmunjom.
The 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea has long sought a treaty, which the US has been reluctant to grant – at least partly on the grounds that it would invalidate the presence of US forces in Korea.
However, Moon has said that US forces could remain, even after a peace deal. So, there are expectations that some kind of end-of-war declaration could be tabled in Hanoi, though an actual peace treaty would also require the signature of China, a major combatant.
Some experts believe that a peace treaty would offer Kim an excuse to begin disarming his heavily militarized nation and focus more on his economy.