The second Trump-Kim summit: What will success look like?

Key rings adorned with sketches of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald J. Trump are seen for sale in Hanoi on February 24 ahead of the two leaders’ summit in Vietnam. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 and 28.

The two leaders last met in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Following that meeting—the first engagement between a sitting US president and the leader of North Korea—Trump declared that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” However, there is little evidence that Kim is preparing to eliminate his nuclear weapons.

On January 29, top intelligence officials—FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats—presented to a Senate panel the conclusions of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that found Kim’s regime is “unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions.”

Coats told the Senate intelligence committee: “Our assessment is bolstered by our observations of some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.”

We asked our analysts what they expect from the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: What concrete deliverables from the Trump-Kim summit would signal actual progress in the nuclear talks?

Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (Follow him on Twitter @ARVershbow): The stakes are much higher for the second Trump-Kim Jong-un summit than they were for Singapore.  It is now clear to everyone, with the possible exception of President Trump, that Singapore produced no real progress toward denuclearization — or even a mutual understanding of what denuclearization means.  Singapore may have eased political tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, but the Hanoi summit needs to be more than another reality TV show, with little real substance, if it’s to be deemed a success.

The administration’s special representative for North Korea negotiations, Steve Biegun, has said the United States will seek to make real progress on the four tracks set forth in the Singapore Joint Statement: improved US-DPRK relations; steps toward peace on the Korean Peninsula; denuclearization; and recovery and return of the remains of US servicemen missing from the Korean War.

This summit could be judged a success if Trump is able to persuade Kim Jong-un to agree to a specific roadmap or timeline — with clear milestones and provisions for verification — for the dismantlement and destruction of all the North’s nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and production facilities.  The roadmap could indicate what “corresponding measures” the United States will provide at each stage of the denuclearization process, which will take four to five years even in the most optimistic scenario.

Even better than a roadmap would be a concrete “down payment” by the North Koreans.  There has been a lot of speculation that Kim Jong-un will offer the complete dismantlement, under IAEA supervision, of its large Yongbyon facility, where most (but not all) of its fissile material for nuclear weapons is produced.  This would not settle the question of whether Kim Jong-un is ready to go all the way to complete denuclearization, but it would be a step in the right direction by capping the growth of the North’s nuclear arsenal.

Concrete steps on the denuclearization track could justify similar “down payments” by the United States on the peace and US-DPRK relations tracks:

  • a political declaration on the end of the Korean War — a first step toward a formal peace treaty, which would involve China as well as the United States and the two Koreas, and which should only be signed when denuclearization is complete; and
  • opening of diplomatic liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang, a first step toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies.

Genuine progress on denuclearization could also justify some tentative, but reversible, steps toward easing economic sanctions, such as lifting US objections to some North-South economic projects, such as reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang resort.

Robert A. Manning, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4): To be successful, it should include North Korea destroying all the facilities in Yongbyon under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring and verification in exchange for an end-of-war declaration, liaison/interest section offices, and sanctions exemptions for North-South economic projects—the Kaesong Industrial Zone and Mt. Kumgang tourism. It must also include a firm, explicit mandate from the leaders for the United States’ North Korea envoy, Steve Biegun, to immediately start implementation negotiations aimed at a comprehensive roadmap linking steps by North Korea to dismantle nuclear and missile capabilities (denuclearization) to roughly parallel steps toward a  peace treaty (negotiated between the United States, China, South Korea, and North Korea) with agreed milestones.

While we can be flexible on the timing and phasing, Kim needs to commit to a full declaration of his nuclear weapons facilities and fissile material. He can address actual nuclear weapons at a later phase.

Trump also ought to test Kim’s economic intentions by publicly supporting North Korea to begin discussions on a membership process to the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and the World Trade Organization. If Kim is too risk-averse to take the sort of steps China and Vietnam took to join the international economic system, then he will be unable to attract the billions in investment needed, and, therefore, US proposed economic benefits may look to Kim like poison carrots. This could torpedo a major deal.

Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (Follow him on Twitter @JamieMetzl): Real success in this summit would result in a very detailed roadmap with a series of verifiable measures each side would take on a relatively quick path toward North Korean denuclearization. Because this is not a likely outcome, the best we can hope for is the announcement of a few feel-good measures that don’t undermine US strategic interests.

Given that the Singapore summit significantly strengthened North Korea at the United States’ expense, that North Korea has taken no steps toward denuclearization over recent months, and that President Trump seems likely to prioritize his personal interests over the United States’, even this seems hopeful.

Todd Rosenblum, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (Follow him on Twitter @ToddRosenblum1): The most immediate and convincing concrete deliverable that may indicate North Korea is even willing to have a hard freeze on its programs would be letting international inspectors from the IAEA back into the country to verify the status quo.  Ideally, North Korea also will pledge to a date certain plan to remove dismantled equipment and missiles from the country in exchange for some US sanctions relief.

Q: How should Trump approach his second summit with Kim Jong-un? What are some pitfalls he should avoid?

Vershbow: Although I hope to be proven wrong, I am skeptical that President Trump will achieve a successful outcome as I described above. He has undermined his own leverage by repeatedly declaring that he is in “no rush” when it comes to denuclearization and that he is only interested in the North maintaining its moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  This reduces the pressure for Kim Jong-un to agree to all but the most symbolic steps toward denuclearization, while continuing to produce — without restraint — more missiles and warheads that can be aimed at the US mainland as well as South Korea and Japan. An end-of-war declaration, largely symbolic in any case, would be meaningless if  Kim Jong-un manages to avoid any real commitment to denuclearization once again.

Trump should listen to his advisers for a change, insist on clear and enforceable commitments by Kim Jong-un to denuclearization, and not get carried away by the “wonderful” personal chemistry and the “beautiful” language used by Kim Jong-un.  He should avoid making any more unilateral concessions, such as the suspension of US-ROK military readiness exercises announced after Singapore.  The future of the US-ROK alliance and the US military presence in the South should not be subjects for negotiation with North Korea.

Manning: The first rule of negotiations is: never want it more than them and be willing to walk away. There is concern that Trump feels under siege with Congress and US states trying to overturn his state of emergency, Democrats looking into his private businesses, and the Mueller report on Russian collusion all leading him to feel he needs a “win” and a diversion.

Many fear Trump will make  a “small deal,” an end-of-war declaration, which would be only political symbolism (but allow Trump tweet about how he, and only he, ended the Korean War) and North Korea destroying ICBMs and an exchange of liaison offices. This would be a big mistake and wasted opportunity. It would have a negative impact on US allies and credibility in the Indo-Pacific region.

Metzl: North Korean intelligence has Donald Trump’s number. If Trump does not want to be played again by Kim, or misinterpret a communication from North Korean intelligence from Kim as a love letter, Trump cannot be alone with Kim at any point in the negotiations. The North Koreans are masters of the art of the deal and Trump has a consistent record of wittingly or unwittingly making significant and unnecessary concessions to strongman adversaries.

Rosenblum: There is a long history of prior North Korean pledges to eventually disarm that ended in failure and dissembling.  We went backwards in Singapore on specifics and promises.  As far back as 1992, North Korea agreed to “not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.”  North Korea made similar pledges in 1994, 2005, 2007 (when it promised to declare all of its nuclear program), and again in 2012.

Reaffirming the Singapore pledge and a qualified offer to more ill-defined steps toward denuclearization of the peninsula (using North Korea’s own definition of denuclearization) in exchange for concrete actions by the United States is a trap that should be avoided.

Q: How are South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Chinese President Xi Jinping viewing this summit?

Vershbow: South Korean President Moon Jae-in is hoping for a genuine step forward on denuclearization.  Without it, his policy of reducing tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang and expanding North-South economic relations will need to be put on hold since sanctions prevent activities that could benefit North Korea economically.  Moon, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is wary of a “small package” that could involve a North Korean offer to dismantle intercontinental systems aimed at the United States while leaving in place missiles pointed at Korea and Japan — potentially driving a wedge between Washington and its allies.

Manning:
  One problem with the way Trump has defined this as a bilateral US-North Korea issue is that it has isolated all the major frontline states in Northeast Asia (China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea), which have pursued their own deals with North Korea, but whose cooperation and policy coordination will be necessary for a deal to be successful. This has created some anxiety amongst the other actors.

For South Korea, at one level, President Moon is delighted with the summit and hoping it will create conditions to accelerate his North-South reconciliation efforts and a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula.

Xi Jinping is also quite pleased with what now appears a more flexible US approach. In four meetings over the past seven months with Kim, the Chinese have almost certainly reached understandings (and redlines) about what outcomes are preferred.  Trump will likely find out what those understandings are when Kim proposes his preferred way forward.

However, South Korea and Japan are both quite concerned about how the Trump-Kim summit and agreements it may reach will impact the future of US alliances with them. They fear a tradeoff ending or reducing the US military role on the Korean Peninsula and an ICBM deal that will leave them both vulnerable to short- and medium-range nuclear-capable missiles from North Korea.

Xi Jinping is very pleased with Trump’s bold diplomacy, and especially indications that the US position appears more flexible than before. Where prior to the first summit [in Singapore] the United States wanted North Korea to denuclearize before sanctions were lifted, now Trump says he is “in no rush for denuclearization” and the administration appears willing to move in a step-by-step process.

China values stability above all. It would like to see North Korea open its economy and pursue reform similar to what it has done. It would also prefer a denuclearized North Korea, though it may be willing to settle for a nuclear freeze.

Metzl: Moon and Abe are rightly worried that Trump might wittingly or unwittingly betray their country’s interests. Xi is delighted that Trump has played his hand so poorly and strengthened China, China-North Korea relations, and China’s relationship with South Korea.

Rosenblum: President Moon, Prime Minister Abe, and Chinese President Xi have already absorbed the straightforward lesson that flattery and giving the appearance of a concession is key to managing President Trump.  Will President Trump make a concrete concession like declaring the end of the Korean War or a diminishment in the US-ROK security alliance in exchange for vagaries?  If so, the South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese leaders will double down on wanting direct summits with President Trump where they, too, can offer imagery over substance.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.