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At the Vietnam summit, Trump has a chance to prove everyone wrong on North Korea

Will Trump strike some deal with Kim Jong Un?

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks with President Donald Trump during a break in talks at their historic US-North Korea summit on June 12, 2018.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks with President Donald Trump during a break in talks at their historic US-North Korea summit on June 12, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week will prove the biggest test of the president’s personal brand of diplomacy.

Trump upended decades of US diplomatic protocol toward Pyongyang when he agreed to sit down face to face with the North Korean leader last June to kick off nuclear negotiations. Instead of reserving such a high-profile meeting until a final deal had been reached, as was the usual custom, the president decided to make personal engagements with Kim the centerpiece of his strategy to convince North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.

Now, nearly nine months since their first encounter in Singapore — which did little to address the underlying issues between the two countries — Trump has a chance to show that his courtship of Kim is actually paying off in real, tangible ways.

US officials and experts I’ve spoken to say there are several concrete measures the two leaders could agree to that would make the February 27-28 meetings, which will include at least one private meeting between the two leaders, a genuine success.

One is if Trump and Kim take any steps to improve overall relations between their countries. Another is if Kim actually agrees to end his nuclear program, or — more likely — agrees to shutter key parts of it.

And a tentative deal between the two sides — to be finalized in Hanoi — has emerged that suggests that, though it may still change between now and then, both of those key measures may be in the cards.

Under the current iteration of the agreement, described to me by two people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues, the US would agree to lift some sanctions on North Korea and improve ties between the two countries in exchange for a commitment from Kim Jong Un to close down a key nuclear facility.

The stage, then, is set for a potentially meaningful summit — but major risks remain.

It’s possible Trump and Kim could sign a broad and unspecific declaration like they did in Singapore. While that might make for another good photo op for both leaders, it would almost surely sour some of the more hardline officials in the Trump administration on the continued usefulness of diplomacy. And that could potentially put the two countries back on a path toward war.

President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 25, 2019 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. This will be the second summit between North Korea and the United States
President Donald Trump waves as he boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 25, 2019, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. This will be the second summit between Trump and Kim on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

That worry, among others, has led most experts I’ve spoken with to express deep skepticism that much good will come out of Hanoi this week. Trump, however, seems optimistic. “I think we’ll have a very tremendous summit,” he told Republican governors on Monday. “We want denuclearization, and I think [Kim will] have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy.”

If he’s right, it would be the strongest validation yet of the Trump brand of personal diplomacy. If he’s wrong, though, it could be a disaster.

“This is the true test of Trump’s approach to North Korea,” said Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the nonpartisan Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “It can only be proven effective for US-North Korea relations if progress can actually be made.”

How we got here

Trump and Kim first met on June 12 in Singapore, the only time in history that a sitting US president had ever met with a North Korean premier. Interest in the spectacle was naturally high, but the gathering proved more pageantry than substance.

The joint declaration the two leaders signed at the end of the summit laid out a four-point aspirational plan that both the US and North Korea (shorthanded as “DPRK,” the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) vowed to work on together going forward:

1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

What the declaration noticeably lacked, however, was specifics about how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

And after the summit, it became clear there was a major problem. The North Koreans claimed the declaration was a step-by-step road map to improving relations between the two countries, with denuclearization as the third step.

But the Trump administration seemed to have a very different read of the declaration: They made it sound as if Kim had finally agreed to give up his entire nuclear program, and that he would start doing so right away, without receiving anything in return from the US at the start.

As soon as he landed back in the US, Trump tweeted about the victory he thought he’d earned, proclaiming, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

The US was quickly disabused of that notion. In the two months after Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly asked North Korean negotiators to give up 60 to 70 percent of their nuclear arsenal up front before the US lifted any sanctions.

Kim’s representatives bristled at the requests, claiming Trump had promised to make progress on the first two points of the declaration — which laid out ways to improve US-North Korea ties — before anything else.

It seemed the two sides were at an impasse, and many feared negotiations would soon break down altogether.

Prospects started to change, though, after Pompeo appointed Stephen Biegun, a longtime Republican foreign policy professional, as the special envoy for North Korea negotiations.

Biegun initially struggled for months to even meet with his Pyongyang counterparts, fueling the widespread view that he had little power. But on January 31, he delivered a speech at Stanford that eventually started a mad rush of working-level talks.

Here’s what he said: First, the US had ditched its initial all-or-nothing approach and was instead adopting the step-by-step process championed by the North Koreans. Going forward, Biegun added, the Trump administration would take commensurate steps with the Kim regime to eventually rid the country of its nuclear weapons.

That was consistent with Trump’s repeated statements that he’s in “no rush” for a deal with North Korea, as long as it continues not to test any more nuclear bombs or missiles. Pyongyang hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since September 2017, or a missile since November of that year.

Second, Biegun announced that Kim had told Pompeo he would dismantle “the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs,” which would include the Yongbyon facility. If true, it would be a massive signal that Pyongyang might be serious about curbing its nuclear program.

Trump announced he would meet with Kim less than a week after Biegun’s speech — partly, experts say, in an effort to see just how genuine North Korea’s offer really is.

So it’s now up to Trump to make headway with Kim. And despite all the uncertainty, there’s a chance he might find some success.

US-North Korea relations could improve dramatically in Vietnam

David Kim, a former State Department official who worked on North Korea, told me that better ties between Washington and Pyongyang are the most overlooked part of what could come out of Hanoi.

“Success should not be defined by how quickly North Korea denuclearizes, but by how fast we can get to a place in our relationship where North Korea doesn’t feel like it needs to rely on their weapons for regime survival,” Kim told me. “It’s the most critical component of this whole effort.”

A painting of US/UN and North Korean soldiers and armistice negotiators in 1953 in the demilitarized zone border town of Panmunjom, Korea.
A painting of US/UN and North Korean soldiers and armistice negotiators in 1953 in the demilitarized zone border town of Panmunjom, Korea.
Painting by Ed Vebell/Getty Images

And according to two people familiar with the tentative deal, Trump and Kim may take several steps in Vietnam to do just that — including signing a peace declaration.

The Korean War ended in 1953 with the warring parties only signing an armistice — a truce — which means the war technically continues to this day. Both North and South Korea (as well as the US, which defends South Korea) have troops and weaponry at or near the border dividing the two countries, a heavily fortified area known (paradoxically) as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

This is one major reason why North Korea has long oriented its foreign policy toward deterring a future attack by the United States and South Korea — in part by developing nuclear weapons.

But Kim now says he wants to focus more on improving his country’s economy, one of the world’s poorest. To do so, experts tell me, Kim needs a peace declaration with the United States. This would provide political cover for him to denuclearize part — or, less likely, all — of his arsenal. Without that declaration, any concession Kim makes to Trump could make the North Korean leader look like he’s capitulating to a sworn enemy.

A signed peace declaration between the US and North Korea would not legally end the war, experts say, because it wouldn’t be a full treaty and probably wouldn’t include China, which defended North Korea during the war. But a declaration would be formal enough that both Trump and Kim could say the hostilities officially ended. Experts say that Kim in particular believes he needs the declaration first to avoid criticism from North Korea’s military.

Trump promised Kim in Singapore that he’d sign a peace declaration, and now it looks like he might actually follow through.

Many experts told me this is a positive first step — and not much of a concession, because the fighting stopped decades ago. Plus, building trust is likely the best way to convince Kim to potentially part with his nuclear arsenal.

Others, though, are less sanguine about the prospect of a peace declaration. Critics fear such a declaration would merely serve to further legitimize Kim, a brutal dictator, and reward him for doing nothing — and in fact, for continuing to develop his country’s nuclear program this entire time.

Still, if the US and North Korea find concrete ways to improve their relationship, that could be counted as at least a small, but still significant, success.

Two other elements of the tentative deal — a promise from Kim to return additional remains of US troops who died during the Korean War and a pledge by both sides to establish liaison offices (unofficial embassies with little authorities, basically) in each other’s countries — would further bolster the fledgling relationship.

But most analysts are still likely to judge the meeting based on whether Kim actually agrees to dismantle his nuclear arsenal.

And on that front, nearly every expert I’ve spoken to has been clear: Don’t hold your breath.

There may be some — but not much — movement on denuclearization

One of the main impediments to striking a denuclearization deal is the question of who goes first.

Right now, the two sides are at an impasse: America is demanding that North Korea offer a full, detailed list of its nuclear inventory before the US lifts any sanctions on the country, and Pyongyang is demanding the sanctions be lifted before it offers the full list and seriously begins to downgrade its nuclear capabilities.

And neither side is likely to give in to the other’s demands in full — in Vietnam or elsewhere.

Replicas of North Korean and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul on June 10, 2018.
Replicas of North Korean and South Korean missiles are displayed at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul on June 10, 2018.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

But there could be some movement.

According to the outline of the tentative deal — which, again, could very likely change between now and the summit — North Korea will agree to close its Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for some modest sanctions relief from the US.

Yongbyon, which one leading expert called “the heart of their nuclear program,” is the only place (that we know of) where the country can make plutonium for nuclear bombs. If it shuts down, Pyongyang’s ability to make plutonium-fueled nuclear weapons will be severely curtailed.

That wouldn’t mean the end of North Korea’s nuclear program — not by a long shot — but it would be a concrete gesture that would help signal that Kim may actually be serious about dismantling it eventually.

That said, it’s one thing for Kim to say he’ll close the facility, and another thing entirely for him to actually do so.

Rebecca Hersman, a nuclear expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me that for this to be a real concession, Kim would have to let international inspectors into the facility to verify that nuclear material production had really ended. Without those inspections, there’s no way to know if Kim has followed through on his promise.

That’s a move the leader may be reluctant to take. And even if he did so, he could always just restart the shuttered facility once the inspectors left — as his father, Kim Jong Il, did twice before, after deals with the US collapsed.

That, in part, is why experts want any deal on closing Yongbyon to be extremely detailed. “An agreement on the dismantlement of such a site has to be worded deliberately and concisely so technical experts can watch and verify each step in the process,” said Grace Liu of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Success in the nuclear part of the Vietnam talks will therefore come down to just how specific any road map for the end of North Korea’s program really is. Without that, little to no progress will have been made on the denuclearization front, and the summit will have basically been pointless.

And as of right now, the people familiar with the current deal tell me there are no specific details and no timetable for how North Korea will end nuclear-fuel production at the Yongbyon facility. Instead, Trump and Kim will agree in principle to the closure and working-level staff will finalize the details in future talks. It’s also possible the deal will include other weapons facilities.

Which means that Trump may be agreeing to something that sounds good on paper but in practice is worth little. But that’s still not the worst-case scenario of what could happen in Hanoi.

How the Vietnam summit could fall apart

No expert I spoke with wanted to see a bad result in Vietnam. While they disagreed on what would constitute a “good” or “bad” deal, they all hoped both parties would leave Hanoi happier than when they arrived.

But nearly all warned that there’s a very real chance the summit could actually have a negative impact on the negotiations — or even lead to a total collapse of the talks altogether.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump walk side by side during their historic summit on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump walk side by side during their historic summit on June 12, 2018, in Singapore.
Kevin Lim/The Strait Times/Handout/Getty Images

That could happen in two ways.

The first is if the summit is a repeat of Singapore, resulting in little more than a vaguely worded joint declaration devoid of any real substance and few glossy photos of the two leaders smiling and shaking hands. “If that is all the summit produces,” Alexandra Bell, a nuclear expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told me, then “the slide back toward rising tensions might be swift.”

That’s because some of the more hawkish advisers in the Trump administration — particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton — could use another vague outcome to bolster their case that these talks are pointless and that the only real solution to this problem is military force. And if that happens, both the US and North Korea could be back on the path to war with the diplomatic chapter closed.

The tentative agreement, if signed, may just barely clear the bar for this — after all, Kim is agreeing to close down the Yongbyon facility. However, the fact that there are no details on how the US will ensure he actually follows through on that promise may help strengthen the hawks’ case that these negotiations are largely worthless.

The second doomsday scenario is one in which the two volatile, hotheaded leaders end up somehow angering one another during the summit and revert to issuing hostile threats to each other. That’s one of the biggest risks of Trump’s personal diplomacy approach: The whole enterprise rests on Trump and Kim maintaining a good personal relationship.

And it’s especially risky given the two men involved: Trump, a notoriously thin-skinned leader with a short temper who is known to have stormed out of contentious negotiations before when they weren’t going his way; meanwhile, Kim is a spoiled dictator whose entire country bows to his every whim on penalty of imprisonment or death and who is known to have assassinated several members of his family just to shore up his own power.

Needless to say, then, the negotiations between Trump and Kim will be exceedingly delicate, and few are confident Trump has the mettle to walk the tightrope without slipping. But others think the president should have the chance to show his unorthodox approach can work.

“These are risks worth taking,” said Kelsey Davenport, a nuclear expert at the Arms Control Association. “But if Trump walks away with nothing,” she added, “Kim reaps the benefits” and “remains free to continue expanding his nuclear arsenal.”