27 February 2019
Today in Hanoi, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will start their second summit on North Korea’s nuclear program. This follows last year’s meeting in Singapore, which was described by Trump as a war-averting triumph but was actually an embarrassing failure: Trump granted Kim international legitimacy and, going off-script, suspended US military exercises with South Korea, yet received no serious concessions in return.
This time, however, there are signs that the White House is better prepared. Unlike the Singapore meeting, which centred on theatrics and a grand twelve-second handshake between the two leaders, the Vietnam summit will continue for two days, allowing officials to negotiate and refine the terms of a possible deal. Progress will depend on whether the leaders can give concrete form to a process of denuclearisation, and whether Kim genuinely believes in the economic benefits of compromise.
The Hanoi summit was preceded by numerous meetings between American and North Korean officials, and the appointment of a new US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun. In a recent speech at Stanford, Biegun sounded upbeat, suggesting that a detailed “roadmap” to denuclearisation was possible. He also acknowledged the need to engage with other countries, including South Korea and China, and states such as Australia that can help pressure Pyongyang.
Trump, too, appears to have entered this summit less blindly. Despite sometimes lapsing into premature assertions about the prospects of a breakthrough, he said on Sunday: “I’m not in a rush.” This was at least an acknowledgment that a lasting deal will require much more than the sort of vague declaration that came out of Singapore.
The main obstacle to such a deal is that the great goal of these summits – denuclearisation – still lacks an agreed definition. For Washington, it means Pyongyang dismantling its weapons program and capability; for Pyongyang, it means Washington removing its troops and military capabilities from South Korea. Without detail, another overarching post-summit statement committing to denuclearisation will remain ambiguous and dangerous. There are good reasons to be wary of Pyongyang, which has a record of breaking agreements and exploiting ambiguities. A comprehensive agreement, complete with timelines and procedures for verifying compliance, would ensure that a deal’s success does not depend on either Trump’s instincts or Kim’s trustworthiness.
A second question is whether Kim can be persuaded that the economic benefits would be worth the price of abandoning his nuclear ambitions. This is the carrot offered by the United States, including a potential end to sanctions. “With complete Denuclearisation, North Korea will rapidly become an Economic Powerhouse,” Trump tweeted on Monday. “Without it, just more of the same.”
Most observers believe that Kim is genuinely committed to economic development. Since becoming leader in 2011, he has edged towards greater free market activity, including allowing farmers to keep a share of their produce. But economic reform has been slow and tightly controlled, and other analysts insist that Kim’s reluctance to open North Korea’s economy and society risks hindering the long-term prospects for a nuclear deal because the country will remain stagnant and will not be in a position to reap the benefits of international engagement.
South Korea has been trying to compensate for its neighbour’s slow economic progress. Its president, Moon Jae-in, who has been a strong proponent of talks with Kim, is keen to promote commercial ties and last year took corporate leaders on a visit to Pyongyang. Moon supports inter-Korean projects, but without an end to international sanctions, many of them are hamstrung. In December, a special nine-car train took a two-hour journey from Seoul to Kaesong, in North Korea, as part of a ceremony to herald a future reconnection of rail links between the countries. But Seoul needed permission from the United Nations to hold the ceremony, and will not be able to proceed further with the rail project until restrictions on transporting goods and vehicles to North Korea are lifted.
Clearly, there are serious obstacles to a long-term breakthrough to the North Korea impasse – and any Trumpian statements of progress that emerge when the summit ends on Thursday should be treated with caution. Yet there are signs that the White House understands that a deal must involve more than a long handshake – and that Kim’s priorities are shifting, slowly.