Second Trump-Kim summit: Any kind of progress?

Assessing the period from Trump-Kim summit in Singapore until now do you expect some progress and on what topics during the upcoming summit in Vietnam, or you don’t expect much of a progress, and why? Read few comments.

President Donald J. Trump meets with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Credit: https://www.instagram.com/whitehouse/

Benjamin HabibLecturer in Politics & International Relations,, La Trobe University

1. Will Trump write cheques with his mouth that his government can’t cash?  I think we have to distinguish between what Trump and Kim might agree upon in Hanoi and what Trump has the capacity to deliver without the support of Congress.  There is also significant opposition to making concessions to the North Koreans in the US military and foreign policy establishment.  And given the controversy surrounding Trump’s willingness to cosy up to dictators, any agreement may not receive much support in the US.

2. A peace agreement to formally end the Korean War would be a good outcome for the region.  There is talk that Trump will offer this as a concession to advance denuclearisation talks.  This is a good starting point for improving regional relations regardless of denuclearisation.  It will be interesting to see if any of the agreement points from the Singapore Declaration are added to with more substantive detail in Hanoi.

3. Denuclearisation of North Korea is a delusion that won’t die.  American policy-makers in particular are so committed to denuclearisation in the face of two decades of evidence that this commitment has not worked.  Denuclearisation also seems more unlikely now given how US power and prestige in East Asia has declined during the Trump administration.  If denuclearisation wasn’t possible in the past, before the North perfected its nuclear capability and when US power was greater, why would it be possible now?  North Korea’s strategic circumstances have not changed.

4. US-DPRK is not the front line of changing dynamics on the Korean Peninsula.  Inter-Korean engagement is now more important in setting the tone of regional relationships.  The US has been playing catch-up to Moon Jae In’s initiatives since the start of last year.

Malcolm Cook, Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

I think this summit is more about creating an opportunity for President Trump to act as an international statesman than to achieve real progress in the denuclearization of North Korea. According to public sources, very little substantial progress on North Korean denuclearization has been made since the first Trump-Kim Summit last year. There is still no agreement on the definition of the term “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

North Korea may offer to do things it has done before like decommissioning the aged Yongbyon nuclear facility. The real worry is what President Trump may offer in return.

Ronald HuiskenSenior Fellow, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

The most conspicuous outcome from the Singapore summit is that Kim deflected all attempts to engage on denuclearization , declaring instead that his over-riding priority was economic development, making the sanctions regime not only very damaging but also contradictory ( that is, clashing with Washington’s message that it wished to engage the DPRK).  Sanctions, of course, were Washington’s principal means of protesting and deterring the DPRK’s provocative surge to a rudimentary nuclear weapon capability. DPRK may have concluded that it would be useful in the long-run if it broke that linkage – that is, forced Washington to offer some weakening in the sanctions simply to keep the DPRK engaged even if it still resisted any substantive steps on the nuclear front. This line of thinking has become blurred because although Washington has remained firm on sanctions the ‘maximum pressure’ they imposed was critically dependent on China playing its full part and, it appears, China did so only briefly before relaxing its vigilance at the end of 2017.

There is little hard evidence of an alternative path toward a genuine commitment to negotiate a trade-off between the DPRK’s nuclear capacities and the economic, political and security measures that Washington could support in return. Rather than hard evidence, we have had worried speculation that Trump might be seduced into trading a peace treaty (to replace the armistice) for the DPRK’s ICBMs (but not its nuclear warheads or its short and medium range missiles). We can hope for a pleasant surprise but the most likely scenario for Hanoi is another round of fencing or gamesmanship as the DPRK (in particular) probes for a way into the more substantive issues that leaves it occupying the moral high ground. There is, as yet, little sign the deep, determined and shared commitment to a nuclear free Korean peninsula that will be needed to sustain a negotiating/implementation process that will consume years.

Ramon Pacheco PardoSenior Lecturer in International Relations, King’s College London, KF-VUB Korea Chair

I expect progress for two reasons. Firstly, neither Trump nor Kim can come out empty-handed from their meeting. So the meeting wouldn’t be happening unless both can go back home and show that it was a success. Secondly, we have had working-level meetings for a few weeks now. These have been used to nail down many of the details to be discussed and agreed upon by the two leaders.

In my case, I expect an agreement in which both countries will take corresponding measures. I expect North Korea to agree to substantial steps towards denuclearisation like closing Yongbyon for good and perhaps allowing international inspectors if the US agrees to some sanctions relief, perhaps by allowing waivers for inter-Korean projects. I think that a peace declaration or some promise of it are also on the table, since North Korea clearly wants one and the Trump administration has suggested that it is on offer. Having said that, in my view we are at the start of what will be a long, years-long process. So I’m not expecting a detailed roadmap all the way o denuclearisation, which would be unrealistic at this point.

Maria Ryan, Assistant Professor of American History, University of Nottingham

I’m sceptical about the prospect for substantive progress at this summit. Although Trump himself has shown very occasional flashes of insight (e.g. realization that US military exercises in the seas around the two Koreas are provocative to the North Koreans), he does not have the patience, the concentration, or the diplomatic skill to ensure that the process of rapprochement continues after the summit is over. His closest foreign policy advisors, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, are hawks, who do not want diplomacy to succeed. Bolton is a life-long unilateralist, who has always opposed talking to America’s adversaries, be it Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. Pompeo is on record stating that there will be no US concessions towards the normalisation of the US-DPRK relationship until Pyongyang has disarmed completely, whereas the North Koreans favour a more staged and reciprocal approach to normalisation.

I read in the New York Times that the South Korean government has been talking up the possibility that Trump and Kim may at least make a symbolic declaration that ends the war between the two countries. This could then be a bridge to further progress. Since Trump and Kim both like to make a splash in the international media, I think this is a possibility. But it would need to be followed by a long term diplomatic process to formalise the new peacetime arrangements culminating in a formal peace treaty. However there is no agreement on what those arrangements would be. So we keep coming back to the fact that the two sides have fundamentally different views about the core issues: the future of the DPRK’s nuclear programme, and the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Daniel Pinkston, Lecturer in International Relations, Troy University

I would say the summit itself represents great progress for Kim and the Korean Workers Party’s efforts to obtain the international respect and prestige they feel they deserve. It’s a great propaganda windfall for the regime. But for the U.S., South Korea, and U.S. allies? I don’t expect much, and I fear that Trump could stumble into making serious blunders. He is easily manipulated and an easy mark for Kim and his advisers. If progress for the international community were to be had, the details could have been worked out before the summit. The summit is not necessary if NK wants to commit to confidence-building measures by engaging in serious arms control and by improving human rights.

Sung-Yoon LeeProfessor in Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University

1. In Hanoi Kim Jong Un will further ensnare Trump on his march toward full nuclearization, compelling Trump to make more concessions like a peace agreement and drawdown of military support for South Korea. Such “peace” concessions paradoxically will increase the risk of war in the Korean peninsula where an actual peace, imperfect as it may be, has been in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Pyongyang seeks to dislodge the US from Korea and the region by becoming a credible nuclear threat to the US homeland and suing for peace from a position of strength. Trump has pretty much enabled Pyongyang’s long-cherished strategic goal.

Even in much better case scenario, the train of events that Trump has unleashed by impulsively agreeing to the first summit last year and becoming a captive of protracted talks with Pyongyang may mean nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia, as South Korea and Japan awaken to their changing realities.*

2. For Pyongyang, it always pay to provoke. Pays even more to placate after provoking. Threatening the de facto peace in Korea and becoming a political headache to the US, only to take a step back and change its tune from molto agitato to placido and be rewarded with economic/military aid by its traditional patrons, Moscow and Beijing and, in the post-Cold War era, by the US and South Korea, is a highly successful “business model” with a proven track record–tens of billions of dollars worth of blandishment that almost certainly would not have been transferred to Pyongyang’s coffers had North Korea behaved as what it is–a small, backward, aid-dependent state presided over by an ultra-weird looking cruel dictator contending with a far richer and freer Korean state across the border.

3. The North Korean leadership’s weaponization of its weirdness is a high-stakes, high-profit act. After a period of relentless provocations and self-isolation, the leader, who is a unique amalgamation of medieval mores and buffoonish bellicosity, engages his neighbors while flashing smiles and is accepted as a reasonable, responsible statesman with whom the world can do business. Bigger and bigger concessions continue to pour in. The American propensity to patronize its small, funny-looking adversaries explains much of the unrelenting failure of nuclear diplomacy vis-a-vis Pyongyang over the past quarter century.

4. Kim Jong Il, the current tyrant’s father, during the first six years of his rule upon inheriting power in 1994, never traveled abroad or met with a single world leader, while assiduously reinforcing his mysterious and mockable image. All of a sudden, he popped up in Beijing in May 2000, because he had an important summit meeting with the South Korean leader coming up in mid-June and needed to discuss matters with his sole ally, China (Kim Jong Un showed up in Beijing in March 2018 on the eve of his summit with Moon Jae-In April 27, after six years of enjoying a weird reclusive lifestyle). After receiving South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June 2000, Kim the Second hosted Putin in Pyongyang in July, President Ziang Zemin in Sept., sent a special envoy to Bill Clinton in Oct. who delivered an invite to Clinton for a Pyongyang visit (Sec of State Madeleine Albright was toasting Kim in Pyongyang 12 days later). Clinton, like Trump, was eager to “make history,” yet the Al Gore-George W. Bush vote recount in the wake of the Nov 7 election, which was not resolved until Gore conceded defeat on Dec 13, thwarted the controversial Pyongyang pilgrimage.

5. Undeterred, Kim II visited China again in January 2001, this time imitating Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “Southern Tour,” a reaffirmation of his economic opening program by visiting Special Economic Zones in Shanghai, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, etc. At the time, much of the world heralded the second coming of Deng. A North Korean reformer had been born. In Aug, Kim took the train all the way to Moscow and signed a joint statement with Putin. The next year (Sept 17) Kim received Japanese PM Koizumi in Pyongyang. It was the first ever North Korea visit by a Japanese leader, as Putin’s the previous July had been the first Pyongyang visit by a top Russian or Soviet leader.

Hence, I expect Kim Jong Un to show much interest in Vietnam’s reform and opening on this episode–perhaps visiting high tech companies in Hanoi or in southern China en route to/from Vietnam.

6. Kim Jong Un has successfully trapped Trump in a protracted process of negotiations during which buys him time and money with which to further advance his nuclear and missile capabilities. Sanctions enforcement today is a shell of what it was in 2017. China and South Korea are itching to pour money into Pyongyang now that Kim Jong Un has become a responsible steward of Nukes ‘R Us & Gulag Nation. Japanese PM Abe is desperate for a summit meeting of his own lest he falls behind and ends up marginalized. Putin will further legitimate Kim with a summit of his own. One must realize that being engaged by Pyongyang–on its own terms, schedule of talks, conditions for the next round, etc.–is to abet Kim’s nuclear programs. Talks always come with risks. In this case, with deadly risks.

7. The “Vietnam Model” has always been Pyongyang’s dream. Become a major liability to Washington, compel it to sign a peace deal (eg, Paris Peace Accords, Jan 1973), evict US forces from the South, and move right in with guns blazing. Today, North Korea, that is, the Korean state in the peninsula that far lags behind the other in every index of measuring national success but military power, is closer than ever since the early days of the Korean War to realizing its highest state objective of reunifying the Korean peninsula by force. “Peace” sounds very pleasant, but a peace agreement between the US and North Korea and allowing Kim Jong Un to buy more time only increases the chance of war.

Tong Zhao, Fellow, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The international community needs to clearly understand the North Korean leader’s strategic goals regarding what will happen during and after the Hanoi summit. Kim Jong Un appears to have two strategic goals. One is to maintain an independent nuclear strategic deterrent to safeguard national security. Unless real trust is built between the United States and North Korea, which could take decades to happen if things go well, there is little that Washington can do to make its security guarantee to Pyongyang look credible and irreversible.

For this reason, the international community should not expect any concessions from North Korea that would undermine its capability to maintain its existing nuclear deterrent forces for the foreseeable future. If President Trump is willing to accept a deal that focuses on freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and preventing their further advancement, as opposed to eliminating the core elements of its existing capabilities, that would help Kim achieve his most important goal.

That said, this would not necessarily be a bad outcome. The coercive leverage of the international community is very much limited by our desire to avoid a major war with North Korea. Under such conditions, forceful disarmament is beyond our reach and concrete steps by North Korea to freeze and limit the scale and scope of its nuclear and missile programs would be meaningful contributions to nuclear risk reductions.

The second goal of Kim is to keep the engagement process with the United States going, for as long as possible. After acquiring a nuclear deterrent capability, North Korea made a strategic shift toward focusing on domestic economic development. Building a positive and long-term relationship with Washington becomes a very important part of Kim’s efforts to create the right external environment for domestic economic development. As the US-China strategic competition grows, having a relatively good relationship with Washington can also help Pyongyang obtain maximum wiggle room for itself by implementing a strategy of playing strategic balance between Washington and Beijing.

Therefore, if the United States is willing to discuss the establishment of a liaison office in Pyongyang or simply shows interest in continued engagement with North Korea going forward, Kim would achieve his second goal. If the United States would like to start talking about relieving certain economic sanctions and thus give North Korea hope that the shackles on its economic development could be gradually removed, that would be a big win for Kim.

Again, this won’t be a bad outcome from the perspective of promoting peace and stability. To end North Korea’s isolation and to open up North Korea is the best way to mitigate its deep paranoia and fear toward the outside world. At the end of the day, it is not North Korea’s nuclear weapons that threaten us; it is its paranoia.

Andrew YeoAssociate Professor of Politics, Catholic University of America

If progress is defined by more concrete steps then the outcome of the Singapore Summit, then yes. Both Trump and Kim are under pressure to make some type of tangible concession to claim that they’ve moved the peace process forward. This might include from NK meaningful steps to shut down or dismantle nuclear facilities such as the one Yongbyon and agreeing to verification of dismantlement. The US might ease some sanctions. The US will offer to open a liaison office. But if one is expecting something closer to complete denuclearization, we are still many steps behind for that to happen anytime soon.

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