US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address, alongside Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Washington on February 5, 2019. He said he will meet Kim Jong Un in Vietnam at the end of the month. Photo: AFP / Doug Mills

US President Donald Trump has revealed that he will hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28 in Vietnam. The news came just as his envoy arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, local time.

In his annual State of the Union speech to the US Congress, Trump, after alluding to the success of his diplomacy with Kim, which he alleged had prevented a war, said: “Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam.”

The meeting in Vietnam had been widely signaled and expected, though it is not clear which city it will be held in. Both Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, and the coastal resort of Danang have been mentioned as possible locations.

It will be the second-ever summit between the two leaders, following their ground-breaking meeting in Singapore in June last year. Although the two leaders appeared to strike up a convivial man-to-man relationship in Singapore, the stakes are high for the upcoming meeting, given the lack of progress that followed the last summit.

Vietnam: model for Kim?

Vietnam looks like a sound choice for multiple reasons. It enjoys diplomatic relations with both Pyongyang and Washington, and is on a politically safe, and relatively short, flight path for Kim.

Last year, US officials praised Singapore as a highly developed city that could provide a model for Kim as he proceeds with economic reforms, and Vietnam also provides a number of political and economic benchmarks that US officials might like Kim to observe up close.

Though it remains a communist state with the kind of security apparatus that would appear to obviate any terroristic threat or street protests during the sensitive visit, Vietnam has undertaken very significant economic reforms and has widely opened up its formerly closed society.

The nation currently enjoys excellent relations with the United States, its former wartime adversary. Like North Korea, Vietnam sits on a strategic flank of China, with whom it was previously allied in anti-American conflict and with which it also suffered strained relations.

Hanoi might offer better conference and more extensive hotel facilities, but Danang would also make sense.

Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have both made references to the bright economic future awaiting North Korea if it gives up nuclear arms. At a time when Kim is promoting the east-coast city of Wonsan as North Korea’s premier beach resort, Danang could provide benchmarks for Wonsan’s future as a world-standard Asian beach destination.

Summit deliverables

On Wednesday morning, US Special Representative Stephen Biegun flew from Osan Air Base in South Korea directly to Pyongyang following meetings in Seoul on Monday and Tuesday, South Korean media reported.

In Pyongyang, Bieguen is expected to hold talks with his newly-appointed North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol. The two envoys met last month when Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean former espionage general who has emerged as Kim Jong Un’s leading denuclearization negotiator, travelled to Washington last month to meet Pompeo and Trump.

Much hangs on the upcoming summit. While the Singapore meeting ended with a vaguely worded document in which the two parties agreed to upgrade relations and work toward peace and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it was short on details.

Little has been achieved since. While Pyongyang has complained of a lack of progress in peace-building, such as the indefinite suspension of South Korea-US military drills, and that sanctions remain in place, Washington has been unimpressed with Pyongyang’s baby steps toward denuclearization, such as the dismantling of parts of a missile-engine test site.

The mutual distrust puts an onus on the second summit to rejuvenate the process by coming up with a more detailed game plan that both capitals can agree to work on.

Biegun has said he wants “a set of concrete deliverables” from the second summit. Last week, according to Reuters reports from the US, he said that during a meeting between Kim and Pompeo in October, North Korea had committed to the dismantling of its plutonium processing and uranium enrichment facilities.

Barriers abound

Speculation is rampant in both Seoul and Washington on what issues might be tabled in Vietnam.

As of late last year, Washington allowed a minor crack to appear in UN Security Council sanctions by permitting humanitarian aid and equipment into North Korea. Now, there are some indications that Washington may be prepared to offer a formal close to the 1950-53 Korean War – a conflict that ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

That is a concession that Pyongyang has been seeking for decades. Some experts say that such a move would provide North Korea’s leaders with the excuse they need to begin disarming the world’s most heavily militarized society.

The step might also provide incentive for North Korea to provide the United States with what it has long sought – a full declaration of the North’s nuclear facilities. If that declaration is delivered, international inspections and dismantlement could follow.

However, the majority of North Korean pundits believe that Pyongyang will never fully denuclearize.

Moreover, disarmament experts warn that the process – assuming it actually gets underway – would be hugely intrusive and fraught with both technical barriers and political risk.

They say the world has never embarked upon such a complex and extensive atomic disarmament program and – even assuming Pyongyang and Washington manage to reach a way to do this – the expertise and skills required to execute it would be massively stretched.

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