The second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump takes place in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday this week. The world will be watching with bated breath as this leader-to-leader, top-down process gets underway. What do you need to know before it all kicks off? Here are some of the key points:
What happened at the first North Korea-US summit last June?
Lots of good vibes. The key adjective bandied about was “historic” – which it was, as the first-ever meeting between sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States. And the declaration produced at its conclusion was feted for being broad in its aspiration. However, that declaration was also criticized for lacking detailed commitments, roadmaps or timelines binding the two parties.
What was actually agreed on in Singapore?
North Korean and the United States agreed on three big-ticket issues: The need to upgrade bilateral relations; to work to upgrade peace and security on the Korean peninsula; and to achieve “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
What happened after?
Precious little. Washington largely ignored the first two issues to focus almost exclusively on denuclearization. The main dialog channel has been between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korea counterpart Kim Yong Chol. Both are sharp knives: Pompeo is a former CIA chief, Kim a former espionage general. They have failed to produce any breakthrough – or, indeed, any bilateral agreement on how to proceed with denuclearization.
So who is talking now?
A lower-tier channel has been opened between the highly regarded US Special Envoy Stephen Biegun and the recently-appointed North Korean point man on US negotiations, diplomat Kim Hyok Chol. These two are gentler souls than Pompeo and Kim, and may be able to reach agreements that have eluded the latter pair, who appear to share zero chemistry. Moreover, both leaders seem to want matters to proceed.
Can a top-down approach bridge the wide gaps between the sides?
If the envoys can agree on an agenda, it is feasible. Trump has made very clear that he likes Kim (!), and Kim continues to praise Trump. The President, embattled at home, is seeking a foreign policy success of real magnitude – and the Korean peninsula, a decades-long quagmire for US strategy and diplomacy, could be it. (And for one thing, it has fewer moving parts than the fiendishly complex Middle East.) Kim is also leaning in the direction of the US. Reportedly, he has recently purging hardline officials who are opposed to cozying up to Washington, while editorials in state media talk up engagement. But let us be honest: The Hanoi summit is required, not to continue the Singapore process, but to try to get the engine started.
What is on the agenda?
Nobody outside the corridors of power in Pyongyang and Washington knows. And possibly not even them: Biegun and Kim are still engaged in behind-closed-doors, down-to-the-wire discussions in Hanoi.
Are the two parties even on the same page?
Er – no. A rather large problem is that the two sides have yet to – believe it or not – agree on what “denuclearization” actually means. This startling admission was revealed by Biegun in a rare speech at Stanford University in January. North Korea says it must include the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella in the region, while the US seems to think it includes elements of CVID (“See-vid”): Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible, Dismantlement. But the North Koreans have always disliked this acronym and – apparently in deference to their wishes – the Americans, in Singapore last June, agreed to use the preferred North Korean term “total denuclearization.” Trump has stated that that latter includes CVID. Kim almost certainly differs.
What is at stake?
Peace in Northeast Asia. Trump himself has said that had it not been for his “diplomatic efforts”, North Korea and the United States would be at war. Whether this is anti-Obama posturing, Trump’s personal pomposity, or a retroactive review of the earth-shaking risk that North Korea does truly represent, is open to question. Regardless, lowered security risks in the region, and the possibility for upgraded regional economic integration, is important for us all. Why? Because Northeast Asia is home to three of the world’s biggest economies – China, Japan and South Korea – so results for the region matter for the rest of the world.
What could Kim place on the table for Trump in Hanoi?
He could commit to a continuation of his ongoing moratorium on missile and nuclear tests – which Trump is extremely keen on. But, that does not move the process forward. Kim has been reluctant to provide what the US demands as the basic start of denuclearization: A list of all North Korea’s nuclear assets and facilities. That is because (1) the US might not believe his disclosure is complete, even if it is; and (2) it would be offering the US Air Force an easy target list. However, he could offer the US bits and pieces, including the dismantlement of a missile engine test site and even his central nuclear facility at Yongbyon. If he agrees to the latter, complete with a verification protocol for international inspectors, that would be significant, as it is the country’s key plutonium processing facility. So, too, would be the handover of some fissile materials from either of North Korea’s s nuclear programs – one plutonium-based, the other (more secret) uranium-based.
And what might Trump offer Kim?
The easiest thing to place on the table would be a continuation of last year’s halt to major exercises by South Korean and US troops, but – like Kim’s test moratorium – that is old hat. Militarily, he could halt the regular rotation of US combat units through South Korea. Another offer might be a drawdown of some of the 28,500 US troops in Korea. This horrifies wonks and Democrats, but would likely make little difference to US Forces Korea’s overall defensive posture. One pundit said USFK could be reduced to one corporal but, as long as the South Korea-US Mutual Defense Treaty stands, and as long as he is positioned to be killed in any first attack by North Korea, his death would trigger US intervention. One thing that would be historic and relatively easy to offer would be some kind of end-of-war declaration, possibly leading up to an official, multilateral peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. China would have to sign that, and South Korea would like to. Experts see a peace treaty as a necessary precondition for any substantial North Korean disarmament. Diplomatically, Trump might offer to exchange liaison offices – ie, not full embassies – in both capitals. After all, if a denuclearization process starts, the US will need a monitoring office in-country, and Pyongyang has long sought diplomatic ties with the US. But the big, overriding issue is commerce – and sanctions. Trump continues to play hardball and has not indicated that he will offer a lifting of either bilateral or UN sanctions; he wants to “maintain pressure” on North Korea.
So, what about this “enrichment of North Korea” we keep hearing about?
Trump and Pompeo dangle this carrot a lot. They see upgrading North Korea’s economy to Asian “tigerhood” as a key inducement for Kim to denuclearize. Indeed, Kim has signaled, in his regime messaging last year, that he wants to refocus his efforts on the economy. But without a major change on international sanctions, that would be impossible. And most wonks believe that retaining power is a bigger priority for Kim than the enrichment of his long-suffering populace, and having those nuclear weapons “secures” Kim against external attack.
What do the South Koreans want?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will not be in Hanoi, but there has been tight coordination between Seoul and Washington in recent weeks. Moon wants to move beyond the largely symbolic engagements of last year and is pushing to start doing business with the North. For that, Trump just might offer to waive or ease some sanctions, as he has done for humanitarian aid. Moreover, it would be South Koreans, not Americans, taking the financial risks. Moon and Kim both want two key inter-Korean engagement projects – the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tourism zone – reopened after they were shut down by conservative South Korean governments. Experts think a reopening of Mount Kumgang is more likely. Moon also wants a green light to start upgrading the North’s dilapidated land transportation infrastructure. But, where Trump stands on all this is not clear.
Will any deal actually be signed in Hanoi?
Almost certainly. The bigger question is what substance it has. Pundits have low expectations, but hope for pleasant surprises. A declaration – hopefully, one with more concrete deliverables than the Singapore document – is expected on Thursday.
So, will Kim denuclearize?
Ask yourself the same question. If you headed a dictatorship that offers nothing to the world but a strategic threat, would you? Moreover, a strategic threat that you have invested very scarce national resources into for decades? North Korea calls its nuclear arsenal a “treasured sword.” It may be Kim’s only guarantee that he and his close family will not go the way of dictators in Iraq and Libya. Trump seems to believe that Kim may denuclearize. But experts in the Pentagon and the CIA do not . Consensus opinion is that while he may give away parts of the program, Kim will never give up all his nuclear warheads.
If Kim is not going to nix his nukes, why bother with all this diplomacy?
Broadly, there are three arguments. One: While talks are underway, tensions are ameliorated. Two: Few pros believe this process will deliver 100% denuclearization, but it could still go a long way. Three: Maybe – just maybe – if the process results in real trust being built between Pyongyang and Washington, North Korea might feel comfortable enough to denuclearize further, or even fully. But that is a very big “maybe.”
Why is the pow-wow being held in Vietnam?
It works for both sides. Both enjoy diplomatic relations with Hanoi which, as a Communist Party state, can guarantee security and ensure that no embarrassing public demonstrations take place. It is relatively easy for Kim to get there – he is undertaking most of this trip by train, and Trump, of course, can fly anywhere. It is a country that once fought a war with the US, but has now kissed and made up. It is also a party-run state that has enabled capitalism, so it might offer Kim pointers on how he might undertake economic (if not governance) reforms. Moreover, Vietnam and Korea have long been historical flashpoints on the flanks of China. Hanoi has strained relations with big brother in Beijing, and far-sighted American statesmen may quietly harbor long-term ambitions of similarly leveraging Pyongyang away from Beijing and toward Washington.
Finally, does anyone deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It was Kim, in fact, who kicked off the entire process with his New Year’s Day speech last year, then sent a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics, ditched his previously cloistered approach to foreign policy, and put a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. But could the Nobel Committee, in all conscience, hand the prize to a dictator? Trump deserves kudos for doing something no POTUS had done before: Sitting down with North Korea and initiating a process that could lead to sunlit uplands. But summits are just summits, and nothing is irreversible in these early days. Credit must go to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but while he has played an intermediary role, keeping both parties on track, he did not initiate it; nor is he a key player. The major dispute is between Pyongyang and Washington. Frankly, we are just over a year into this process and summits do not equal peace, or even change. So, hold the Nobels for now.