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Foreign Policy

Prospects for Progress in the Second Trump-Kim Summit

Feb 18, 2019
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The second meeting between the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un and the US President, Donald Trump, will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, from February 27 to 28, 2019.

Held in Singapore in June 2018, the first Trump-Kim Summit opened the door to the improvement of relations between the DPRK and the US with a highly abstract Joint Statement. It also marked an important turning point in the construction of a peace mechanism for the Korean Peninsula. Three goals were confirmed in the Joint Statement: “achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, “establishing a new DPRK-US relationship.” and “building a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”. The Joint Statement provided guidelines for the follow-up negotiations between the DPRK and the US.

After the Singapore Summit, the DPRK continued hasn’t conducted any new nuclear missile tests and began to dismantle some tests and satellite launch facilities. Meanwhile, it intensified its strategic adjustment, emphasizing domestic economic development. However, due to lack of basic mutual trust, the DPRK-US denuclearization negotiations, aimed at continuing the progress of the Singapore Summit, did not go well. The DPRK was reluctant to give up its nuclear capabilities, hoping to gain equal rights to participate in the operation of the international system as a de facto nuclear-armed country. Therefore, it insisted that the US relax sanctions against the DPRK. In the future, the DPRK will decide its nuclear missile policies based on the extent to which the US will ensure its security. However, the US insisted that the DPRK’s actions were superficial, demanding the DPRK hand over an inventory of nuclear missile projects and adopt credible nuclear abandonment measures within a certain time frame, otherwise the US would not ease sanctions.

Both sides held onto a fundamental disagreement concerning the definition of “denuclearization”. The DPRK believes that it should mean the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, including the nuclear weapons deployed by the US in South Korea and Japan and the construction of a “nuclear-free zone in Northeast Asia” in the future. However, the US considers “denuclearization” solely as the denuclearization of the DPRK. The best case scenario for the US is to denuclearize North Korea by the end of Trump’s first term in January 2021.

At the end of 2018, the second Trump-Kim Summit was put on the agenda. Since then, the DPRK and the US have increased contact. On January 1, 2019, Kim Jong-un delivered a New Year’s speech, reaffirming his unwavering resolution to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula while expressing his readiness to meet President Trump again. The following day, Trump responded positively, revealing that he had received a personal letter from Kim, and saying that Kim “realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential.” In mid-January, a high-level delegation of the DPRK, led by Kim Yong-chol, Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, visited the White House and met Trump, then brought his reply back to Kim Jong-un.

The DPRK and the US have stepped up their efforts to plan for the second Trump-Kim Summit.

For the DPRK, the adjustment to the policy of “joint development of economic construction and nuclear weapons” was decided at the Seventh Party Congress and the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. After that, the policy of “concentrating all forces of the country for socialist economic construction” was widely publicized, but had limited effectiveness in breaking international sanctions. Anxiety was accumulating. Kim Jong-un sincerely hopes to create a different North Korea and is trying to use his superb diplomatic skills to strike a middle path between retaining the most basic nuclear capabilities and compromising with the US.

Domestic resistance to the Trump Administration increased after the mid-term elections in 2018, so it became urgent to achieve new results in foreign affairs. Trump’s current Asia-Pacific agenda has two goals. One goal is to make breakthroughs on the DPRK nuclear issue, and the other is to achieve “success” in trade negotiations with China. The window of opportunity for the two issues will only remain open in the first half of 2019. In the second half of the year, the agenda in the US will begin to focus on the upcoming presidential elections.

Both the DPRK and the US publicly announced the holding of the second Trump-Kim Summit, indicating that the two sides have already reached a consensus on the political direction needed for a breakthrough. North Korea may adopt some substantial nuclear abandonment measures ranging from the shutting down of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, explicitly accepting international supervision and verification as well as rejoining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The US may recognize the security concerns of the DPRK, including planning the path to the end of the Korean War, mutually establishing representative offices, relaxing sanctions, and organizing international energy and food aid to the DPRK.

At the third phase of the fifth round of the Six-Party Talks, which ended on February 13, 2007, the DPRK agreed to shut down and seal the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon while aiming at eventual abandonment. In the meeting between the DPRK and South Korean leaders in Pyongyang in September 2018, Kim Jong-un told President Moon Jae-in that if the US took corresponding measures, North Korea would not only close the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, but would allow inspectors to enter.

In short, the second Trump-Kim Summit is expected to reach a small-scale package agreement, and determine the initial road map and timetable for the plan of “denuclearization in exchange for security”. The advantages of doing so are to maintain the momentum of dialogue without shaking the fundamental positions of both sides and to open up space for the subsequent negotiations.

After the resumption of the denuclearization talks between the DPRK and the US, the US has been strongly demanding that the DPRK hand over the inventory of the mass destruction weapons including nuclear arsenals and their means of delivery as soon as possible. This is regarded by the hardliners and professional officials in the US as the first step to realize the denuclearization of North Korea. This action can be traced back to the way the US dealt with nuclear issues in other countries like South Africa and Libya. However, this request was strongly resisted by the DPRK. In order to advance the progress of the DPRK-US negotiations, the Moon Jae-in Administration of the Republic of Korea (ROK) officially proposed to the US in October 2018 the suspension of the request for inventory submission. But will North Korea agree to submit a partial inventory? Let’s wait and see.

The DPRK adopted the “double suspension” initiative, jointly proposed by China and Russia. The “double suspension” achieved staged outcomes during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. It is equally important whether the second Trump-Kim Summit will conclude with the suspension of the joint military exercise between the US and South Korea or not. Trump himself does not think that the issue is unnegotiable, which can be seen from his speeches after the Singapore Summit, as the large-scale military exercise held by the US on the Korean peninsula is costly and affects DPRK-US negotiations. However, the US military resolutely opposes the idea, fearful that the suspension will affect the long-term strategic interests of the US in Northeast Asia. Even if Trump finally decides to suspend the military exercises in the future, it can be reversed. In fact, all measures that the US requires the DPRK to take must be irreversible, while all commitments made by the US are reversible. That is to say, once North Korea violates the agreement to restart the nuclear program, the US can immediately impose more severe sanctions against it and carry out larger-scale US-South Korea military exercises.

The second Trump-Kim Summit will reach new consensuses to ease tensions on the Peninsula. Subsequently, based on two US-DPRK Summits, three meetings between the leaders of the DPRK and the ROK, and four meetings between top leaders of the DPRK and China, as long as the denuclearization process between the DPRK and the US is not interrupted and the DPRK continues to develop and improve relations with neighboring countries, like South Korea, China and Russia, tensions on the Peninsula should ease in 2019. However, new variables are rapidly accumulating. As DPRK-US negotiations increasingly involve essential and sensitive content and the 2020 US election is approaching, it will become difficult to preserve existing outcomes. Once a new critical point appears, each side will face the choice of continuing towards mitigation or returning to confrontations.

The biggest variable lies in the US. The other side of the Trump Administration’s active communication with the DPRK is that it never stops preparing for stronger disciplinary measures. In the second half of 2019, the highly complicated political situation in the US will inevitably lead to the Trump Administration’s eagerness for quick success and instant benefits in dealing with the DPRK nuclear issue. The hardliners in the US will be more deliberate in disrupting the implementation of the DPRK-US consensus. At present, Trump dominates the DPRK nuclear issue, but he may not be representative of future US policy towards the DPRK.

The possibility that the US acquiesces to the DPRK’s nuclear status cannot be ruled out, but even so, the US will try to squeeze its nuclear arsenal down to the smallest number and will show no tolerance for the DPRK’s construction of long-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile capabilities. US-DPRK negotiations will enter the real “deep end” after the second Trump-Kim Summit, facing the danger of stagnation.

The DPRK shows sincere willingness to reform and integrate into the international community in a controlled manner, but it will not be at the expense of giving up its ability to protect itself. In the DPRK, especially in the military, an undercurrent of revisiting the policy of “joint development” always exists. If the US procrastinates and constantly changes its mind in fulfilling its commitments to the DPRK, Kim Jong-un may not be able to suppress backward impulses in the DPRK.

The inner troubles have increased in the ROK. Not only has the opposition of conservative forces been strengthening, but the economy has also approached the edge of structural crisis. Under these circumstances, Moon Jae-in urgently needs the new Sunshine Policy to work. But if no breakthrough is made in DPRK-US negotiations or the international sanctions against the DPRK are not loosened, there will be few achievements to show. After the second Trump-Kim Summit, Kim Jong-un’s next stop will be Seoul. The fourth Kim-Moon Summit will focus on implementing the North-South economic cooperation projects and inject momentum into the next phase of DPRK-US interactions.

Russia protects its own interests in the Korean Peninsula under the strategic framework of “returning to the Asia-Pacific” and “developing the Far East”. Since the second half of last year, Russia has used its international powers in the UN Security Council to successfully promote the Sanctions Committee on North Korea to give North Korea a way out through offering humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, it has prepared for Russia-DPRK cooperation in infrastructure, science, technology, and transportation for the future construction of the Northeast Asian economic circle, with a summit between President Putin and Chairman Kim Jong-un already in the works. However, amidst severe problems in domestic economy and stalemates with the West, it can spare little energy for the Peninsula issues.

Japan is terribly afraid that the Trump Administration will abandon its interests for a compromise with the DPRK. For example, the US may acquiesce to North Korea keeping intermediate-range missiles that can directly deter the entire territory of Japan. Japan has been intensely lobbying the US to push Japanese concerns into the next stage of negotiations between the US and the DPRK.

Through meeting Kim Jong-un four times, closely communicating with the US and South Korea, and continuing to strictly implement the UN Security Council resolutions on the DPRK, China has maintained its initiative, flexibility, and influence to the maximum extent. China is prepared to propose a plan to promote permanent peace on the Peninsula. Tensions between China and the US, it is still difficult for China to intervene in the Korean peninsula.

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