Vietnamese vendors walk past a billboard for the second US-North Korea summit, in Hanoi on February 26, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Ye Aung Thu

For his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un starting on Wednesday in Hanoi, US President Donald Trump has apparently moved far away from his original strategy of “maximum pressure” with a singular focus on seeking complete, verified and unilateral denuclearization of the Hermit Kingdom. Now he seeks only “substantial” progress for “eventual” denuclearization using multiple tracks for negotiating a sustained nuclear freeze and no more testing of nukes and missiles.

Also on the agenda is initial work on a possible peace treaty ending the 64-year armistice that concluded the Korean War, heralding the next phase of mutual diplomatic recognition with the first step of opening liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, lifting of sanctions in a staggered fashion to incentivize and to provide relief, and extending security assurances for Kim’s regime, all leading to a possible Nobel Peace Prize for 2020, if not 2019. All these negotiating tracks, it is hoped, will move ahead simultaneously and possibly in an apt and agreed reciprocity.

Trump went to the first summit in Singapore last June with a professed position of lifting no sanctions until complete and verified denuclearization of North Korea was achieved. Some of that rhetoric keeps popping up, even lately. This, of course, presented no hope whatsoever of Pyongyang unilaterally dismantling its nuclear deterrence, especially in face of recent American history of pre-emptive strikes and regime-change strategies that make nuclear weapons most critical for the survival and security of Kim’s regime.

Their first summit nevertheless marked a good start, even though it produced no agreed targets or timelines. Their joint statement spoke vaguely of the two sides agreeing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” with Trump promising to end military exercises with South Korea and Kim showcasing his track record of destroying some of his outdated facilities.

Both these concessions were driven entirely by their domestic agendas – Trump’s “America First” and Kim’s quest to advance his nuclear program as some facilities were outdated and due for demolition. So neither concession had much to do with any negotiated reciprocity between these two leaders. But the impacts of the first summit gradually began to unfold, and it is only lately that commentaries have begun to see positive vibes. The credit for that goes especially to the persistent engagements between various interlocutors from both sides led by Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol and their respective teams.

Starting from early May last year – that is, before the first summit – North Korea returned three American prisoners and by late July had begun the process of returning the remains of American soldiers who had died in the Korea War of 1951-53. These remains were only of 55 soldiers, and this program has since come to a halt given the lack of a reciprocal lifting of sanctions by the US. This, of course, could also be due to logistical limitations of the North Korean side in locating and recovering these long-lost enemy soldiers, believed to number between 5,000 and 7,500. 

Similarly, Trump’s tweet following that first summit about North Korea being “no longer a nuclear threat” is now being seen in a different light, with this assumption becoming credible and viewed as a possible outcome of their summits. No doubt, the gap in their perceptions and policies remains too huge to bridge in any hurry, yet their first summit is increasingly seen as having gradually unfolded a process of rethinking on both sides that holds promise. 

Trump, who began his term in the White House by talking about how “an estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis” and later ratcheted up his rhetoric to threatening that this “Little Rocket Man” (Kim Jong Un) “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” was to confess after his first face-to-face meeting with Kim that “I was really being tough … and we fell in love.”

These words were, of course, initially brushed aside as evidence of Trump’s roller-coaster mood swings. But the changing narrative over the last eight months has persisted from both sides. Trump has gradually sustained his talk of “eventual” and “substantial” denuclearization, thereby projecting it as a “process” rather than an “outcome,” while also extending security guarantees to Kim’s family and showcasing his personal bonhomie with Kim himself.

There are experts who see this as groundbreaking, and Trump has already been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. In this new light, Trump’s tweet before heading for Hanoi underlined that he was “in no rush,” and this should lighten the mood for their meeting. Trump has also repeatedly bragged about securing promises from Kim to halt his nuclear and missile testing, and no such tests have happened since 2017.

Driven perhaps by his own need to ensure regime security, Kim has also shifted his goalposts away from his macho brinkmanship of 2016-17

Driven perhaps by his personal need to ensure the security of his regime, Kim has shifted his goalposts away from his macho brinkmanship of 2016-17. An op-ed published in the February 13 edition of his party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun titled “Kim writes a new history of peace” by Oh Jin Seo talks of how the North Korean leader, faced with a nuclear conflict with the US, has decided to make a “great strategic choice to tame the war with love.”

More important is how it talks of this “unexpected and groundbreaking decision to denuclearize” leaving hardly “any room to turn around or go back” and reminding of Kim’s 2019 New Year speech calling it an “irreversible decision.” 

No doubt Rodong Sinmun had earlier published full texts of Kim’s April 27 Panmunjom Declaration and June 12 North Korea-US Summit Statement, yet this public rationalization of “denuclearization” underlining how the “road to peace is hard and sometimes accompanied by great sacrifices” just two weeks before the Hanoi summit may raise hopes for positive outcomes both in Kim’s domestic constituencies and among his US interlocutors. It is believed that every column appearing in Rodong Sinmun is reviewed and approved by the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department to ensure it correctly reflects the opinions of the party’s Central Committee and Kim Jong Un himself.

No one is expecting Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and missiles in a hurry, but the US leadership endorsing this as an accepted possibility makes it comforting for both sides. This newfound flexibility in the US approach promises to provide a certain momentum moving forward, even if it is piecemeal. Optimally, this second summit could produce a written promise from Kim to sustain his unilateral moratorium on testing, a freeze on his nuclear assets, and a promise to share an inventory of his arsenals, and even to allow international inspectors to verify them. In return, the US side may announce some timeline for lifting at least a few of its sanctions to provide economic relief, for a process of signing a peace treaty, and for the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea. 

All of these would, of course, take long and arduous negotiations that would involve Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul in addition to Pyongyang and Washington. Also, like so often in the past, these negotiations may go adrift or die given the possibilities of changes in national leaderships and regional geopolitics.  

In terms of achieving actual dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear forces, the mostly likely process is a staggered approach following an agreed and apt reciprocity in terms of lifting sanctions, which will itself be highly disruptive. For instance, the natural course of dismantling North Korea’s strategic missiles that can reach US territory first would leave shorter-range missiles for successive deals, triggering panicked responses from regional allies like South Korea and Japan, with serious implications for regional security. 

Such recognition and engagement by the US would also embolden Pyongyang further. Because of Trump’s “America first” policy, the US-South Korean alliance has been under stress and is showing cracks. Trump has been airing his discomfort at sustaining US forces in South Korea, asking Seoul to bear all of its expenses, which were raised to US$924 million from $830 million last year. So even the most optimal trajectories for North Korea-US rapprochement involve several invisible tangles. Even in the most optimal scenario, these negotiations will remain extremely incremental and lackluster, testing the patience, finesse and skill of interlocutors and breaking new ground for the summit-diplomacy approach to resolving complex conflicts.

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