February 6, 2019

US President Donald J. Trump made a bit of news in his State of the Union address on February 5 when he announced that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on February 27 and 28.

The choice of Vietnam is a significant one.

“Vietnam was chosen at least in part because it is a country that has friendly relations with North Korea,” said Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former US ambassador to South Korea.


“It is a very good choice insofar as Vietnam is a potential role model for the DPRK in opening up its economy, carrying out market reforms that have made it a fast-growing country and contributor to stability in the region,” he said.

Vershbow noted the parallels between the relationships Vietnam and North Korea have with the United States—both countries fought wars with the United States. “Vietnam now has extremely good relations with the United States and that, too, should be seen as a model for future US-DPRK relations,” he said.

Trump and Kim last met in Singapore on June 12, 2018—the first time that a sitting US president had met the leader of North Korea. Following that meeting, Trump declared North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” and said the world can “sleep well tonight!”

That optimism runs contrary to assertions made by Trump’s intelligence chiefs. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified to the Senate intelligence committee on January 29 that there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Kim will eliminate his nuclear weapons.

Kim has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and has, over the past year, not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test. Nevertheless, Coats said: “We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

So, then, what can we expect from the Vietnam summit? We asked Vershbow, Jamie Metzl (a nonresident senior fellow for technology and national security in the Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy), Robert A. Manning (a resident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security), and Miyeon Oh (director of the Asia Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy) to share their analysis. Here’s what they had to say.

What has been achieved since the Singapore summit?

Alexander Vershbow: Trump always emphasizes the fact that the North Koreans have maintained their moratorium on testing of missiles and nuclear weapons. That’s good news, but its significance should not be exaggerated. The North Koreans are continuing to produce nuclear material and ballistic missiles. It’s harder to verify, but they’re probably continuing to produce additional weapons as well. So, the threat remains and may have even grown since Singapore.

More importantly, progress toward implementing the ambiguous and vague Singapore declaration has gone nowhere. The North Koreans have, until recently, resisted negotiations at the experts level, perhaps believing they can get a better deal by dealing directly with President Trump.

The second summit is a very risky endeavor because a repeat of the approach to Singapore, without sufficient preparation and negotiation of the details, could end up being another photo-op with little substance.

Up until recently I was extremely worried about the lack of preparation. But this week we have seen that the Special Representative Steve Biegun has been able to sit down with his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang. His stated intention, as he laid out in his big speech in Stanford before his departure for Asia, is to negotiate a detailed roadmap that will show how the process is supposed to advance on all the four tracks set out in the Singapore joint statement: improving US-DPRK relations; negotiating a peace treaty to formally end the war and replace the 1953 armistice; denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the meaning of which was never clearly defined; and the return of the remains of US servicemen who died in the Korean War.

If Biegun is successful, this summit could produce a much better document than Singapore, one which would define the steps and the timeline for the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program together with corresponding measures on the other tracks.

Biegun also hinted in his speech that the United States may be moving away from its all-or-nothing approach to sanctions and would be prepared to provide at least limited sanctions relief as well as other measures, such as agreeing to issue a joint declaration to end the Korean War, as reciprocal measures for North Korean denuclearization.

A lot is riding on the success of Biegun’s visit. Hopefully, the talks will continue all the way to the second summit in Vietnam. The danger is that North Korea will continue to hold out for a better deal from President Trump himself and follow its traditional playbook of evading concrete and verifiable commitments to denuclearization.

Jamie Metzl: The Singapore summit was a massive win for North Korea at America’s expense. Since then, North Korea’s leadership has been legitimized, sanctions have been weakened, and the United States has voluntarily degraded its military readiness in the Korean Peninsula. This massive price might have been worth it in exchange for North Korean denuclearization, but North Korea has instead enhanced its nuclear weapons capability in the aftermath of the summit. If a Democratic US president had arrived at the same deal as did President Trump in Singapore, most Republicans would likely have called that treason.

Robert A. Manning: With regard to actual denuclearization, nothing has been achieved since the Singapore summit. Until agreement to hold a second summit was announced, North Korea refused to meet with North Korea envoy Steve Biegun who invited them to meet in Vienna. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also been unable to persuade his North Korean counterpart to meet. That changed with agreement on the summit. Biegun is now in Pyongyang working on detailed arrangements for the second summit, and in a recent speech, he indicated that North Korea has agreed to comprehensive, working-level negotiations for a roadmap and timeline to implement denuclearization and steps toward a peace treaty.

Miyeon Oh: Slightly more than a year ago there was an acute sense of crisis and the risk of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. The Singapore summit defused tensions and created a new environment that opens up new opportunities to start negotiations and achieve a denuclearized and peaceful Korean Peninsula.


What should be on the agenda for the Vietnam summit?

Vershbow: The agenda should be the actual implementation of the Singapore joint statement to include the roadmap that Biegun has talked about as well as clarification of the ambiguous elements of that statement. In a nutshell, it should be a shift from declaratory statements of intent to concrete implementation.

Metzl: This United States should push for real North Korean denuclearization. That this will not be on the table is evidence of how misconceived the summit will be.

Manning: A leader-endorsed mandate to implement commitments on both sides: denuclearization, destruction of facilities for enriching uranium and production weapons-grade plutonium, destruction of missile facilities and missiles, and a commitment to full monitoring and verification of North Korea’s entire WMD program. That requires a declaration of their full inventory of nuclear facilities and fissile material, as well as, at some point, their nuclear weapons. There is flexibility with regard to when in the process they issue that declaration. It could be done in stages, with nuclear weapons in the latter stages.

There needs to be agreement on the principle of reciprocal steps to build trust, with each North Korean step dismantling its nuclear program responded to with proportionate concessions by the United States—such as suspending some sanctions, opening a liaison office, humanitarian food aid, etc. There should be agreement on at least an outline of roadmap for achieving agreed upon goals.

There should also be agreement on the principal of parallel movement in denuclearization, and negotiations for a peace treaty and a process leading to normalization of US-North Korean relations.

Oh: North Korea’s tangible commitment to advance denuclearization. As Biegun stated, it is essential to see what North Korea would offer as “+ alpha” on top of the commitment it has already described—dismantling and destroying the test sites for nuclear and missiles (Punggye-ri and Tongchang-ri) and plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities (Yongbyon). Additional commitment could include a verifiable halt to the production of ICBMs, the removal of ICBMs and warheads to a third country, and a halt to fissile material production at undisclosed sites or beginning to dismantle nuclear facilities other than Yongbyon.


DNI Coats testified that North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. What can the United States do to incentivize denuclearization and how should these measures be sequenced?

Vershbow: Coats was reflecting the substantial evidence that North Korea has not gone beyond a few token gestures involving dismantlement of some small pieces of its nuclear infrastructure, and not to actual denuclearization. It reflects the longstanding assessment that Kim’s regime, like its predecessors, will be very reluctant to give up the insurance policy represented by a nuclear capability. It sees nuclear weapons as indispensable to regime survival.

I think Coats’ assessment is shared by a vast majority of North Korea experts in the United States who characterize the lack of follow-up from Singapore as proof of Kim Jong-un’s real intentions.

I share the skepticism, but I think the administration is right to continue to pursue a diplomatic solution and see whether Kim Jong-un is prepared to depart from the traditional Kim family playbook in return for economic incentives, diplomatic normalization, and security guarantees that would convince him that his regime could survive even without nuclear weapons.

Rather than pretending to negotiate, we need to put Kim Jong-un to the test and also lay a broad range of incentives on the table. The traditional term for this in negotiations with North Korea is “action for action.” It has produced limited progress in the past, but is probably the only way to proceed if we want to achieve a comprehensive solution.

There are many tough issues to address, including verification and a complete declaration of the North Korean nuclear programs. Biegun has signaled that the United States is not insisting on a full declaration at the beginning of the process, but that there has to be a full accounting at some stage. Without that there is no way to know whether you have succeeded in eliminating the whole program or only some parts of it.

Opening up North Korean nuclear facilities to international inspection has never been easy. The North may be more ready to open up its nuclear reactors as part of a deal to end fissile material production, but it has argued that declaring the locations of its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapon storage sites would be tantamount to handing a targeting list to the Pentagon. Getting them to overcome their deep-seated secrecy is not going to be easy.

Metzl: The only way North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons is if the cost of keeping them is greater than the cost of giving them up. Because North Korea’s leaders see nuclear weapons as their ultimate insurance policy, the bar for this will be very high. Only China has the potential to put that level of pressure on Pyongyang, but China has already made a strategic decision to live with a nuclear armed North Korea. The US North Korea policy should therefore seek to increase the cost to China of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Japanese military normalization, rebalancing US diplomatic and military assets to Asia, and significantly enhanced missile defense throughout the region would be a good start.

Manning: One of the premises of these negotiations has been that “this time is different” from previous failed agreements, because Kim is young, wants to be around for several decades, has promised his people economic prosperity, and wants rapid economic growth. But so far, most recently in his New Year speech—two-thirds of which was on the economy—there was no reference to words like reform, modernization, or change. If he wants a more dynamic economy, he needs to join the global economy system and begin accession talks with the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO. There is great potential for South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese investment. But North Korea has no international credit, no legal system or commercial arbitration, and it is unlikely that any large promises of infrastructure—railway lines, gas or oil pipelines, gas turbines, or nuclear power can be realized until North Korea takes those steps.

The United States should incentivize by holding out normalization of relations, support for Kim beginning talks with the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, and offering to train professionals—such as lawyers, MBAs, and accountants. The United States could also offer security guarantees —either by the United States or collectively with China and Russia. And given Kim’s love of basketball and the Chicago Bulls, a visit from Michael Jordan.

Sequencing is critical, and to the degree that they take large steps—for example, Kim offered to destroy all nuclear facilities at Yongbyon which includes a nuclear reactor, fissile material production, and storage and other facilities, the United States should offer large rewards. One good way to do this is get a new UN Security Council Resolution offering to suspend some UN sanctions corresponding to progress in denuclearization, but with a “snap-back” provision, so if North Korea cheats or fails to implement steps, full UN sanctions are restored. That said, the United States could negotiate various options—including allowing more coal exports or oil imports, or allowing the ROK to reopen the Kaesong joint industrial zone, for example.

Oh: The international community, US decision-makers, and the press do not believe that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons. The United States should convince Kim’s regime that it can survive after a peace treaty and receive security guarantees for giving up its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. It is crucial to convince Kim that his economy will better off without his nuclear program. The United States should facilitate denuclearization by maintaining a simultaneous and paralleled approach to seek diplomatic engagement and pressure. As North Korea would seek incremental rewards at every stage of the process of denuclearization, the United States could offer the corresponding measures including a three-party declaration to formally end the Korean war, establishing a liaison office in Pyongyang, people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and easing sanctions on humanitarian aid.   

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

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