US President Donald Trump drew a lot of attention last week when he unexpectedly announced that all he wants from North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un during their second summit, which takes place on Wednesday and Thursday in Hanoi, Vietnam, is no more missile launches and no more nuclear detonations.
The move caught some observers off guard for its appearance of giving in – or giving up – on “complete denuclearization.” It also undoubtedly displeased the hardliners among foreign policy wonks. However, despite the surprise of some and the displeasure of others, Trump’s latest move looks practical and realistic.
The declaration that his aim was a continuation of Kim’s self-imposed moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, which held throughout 2018, is practical. The lack of missiles flying and fissile materials exploding is indeed a peaceful prelude to the upcoming summit. No launches and no detonations are exactly what the peninsula – and the region – needs at this moment.
Trump’s modest-seeming ambition is also realistic as it indicates that he – like most North Korea watchers in the West – has now realized it is improbable that Kim will ever denuclearize totally.
An encouraging atmosphere
Several incidents prior to Trump making his announcement likely contributed in no small degree to the president’s willingness to lower the performance bar for the February 27- 28 meet.
One was a report last October that South Korean President Moon Jae-in remains quite anxious to start economic ventures in North Korea. That was followed earlier this year by a Trump administration official stating that American private sector firms would likely participate in North Korean investment.
That last point has recently been bolstered by Trump’s statement regarding the tremendous economic potential of North Korea. In light of Kim’s statement that he seeks at least US$48 million just for two specific industrial sectors alone – mining and energy – this is precisely what Kim needs to hear.
There are major caveats attached to any investment in North Korea, given a past history of failures by a number of foreign firms. One high-profile example is Orascom, the Egyptian teleco that developed North Korea’s cellular network only to find itself facing competition created by Pyongyang as well as difficulty in repatriating its profits.
However, another fortuitous item was a report earlier this month that negotiators from North Korea and the United States have agreed in principle to inspections of missile and nuclear testing sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for verification of either dismantling or decommissioning of missile and nuclear sites.
There was no mention of when such IAEA inspections might take place, and there was no word on whether all sites – including relevant production and storage facilities – would be subject to inspection. And North Korea has reneged repeatedly on such agreements in the past. Even so, this still looks like a positive step.
What other options?
Though cynics are rarely disappointed by North Korea’s behavior, the upcoming summit could still be a door to establishing detente as discussed previously. After all, what other choices are there? With military options highly unlikely, diplomacy is what remains.
Even if the second Kim-Trump summit yields little else of substance, as long as the missile and nuclear weapons tests remain on hold, that alone is worth the time spent on negotiations. As long as dialog continues, history shows, the likelihood of North Korea precipitating some hostile action or provocation diminishes greatly.
Kim must recognize that, with Trump in the White House, a window of opportunity faces him and that, by playing his cards well, some sort of deal acceptable to Washington could come about even if he refuses to completely denuclearize.
A key Kim demand is for Washington to mitigate some sanctions. Such a move is not without risks, for if sanctions are indeed eased or waived, and if Pyongyang then defaulted on any related bargain, it would be difficult to return to a strict compliance regimen.
Nonetheless, if events unfold as everyone hopes – and this is optimistic thinking – Kim could extend his suspension on missile launches and nuclear tests indefinitely. Japan and South Korea could see their threat levels reduced and the United States would be far less concerned about North Korean nuclear missiles hitting US military bases in Asia or the American mainland.
As noted in a timely analysis by Robert Carlin, a leading thinker on North Korea, getting to the desired end point with Kim is a work in process. If Washington tries to push things any faster, the process is likely to break down.
Now is no time to give up, for real negotiations have just begun. If – emphasizing the “if” – Trump’s modest objectives are met, they could be a win for all concerned in the region.