WASHINGTON/SEOUL – President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in less than three weeks, yet the biggest question hanging over the leaders’ second summit is why they’re even having it.
Since their historic face-to-face meeting in Singapore eight months ago, North Korea has made little progress toward giving up its nuclear weapons and continues to do what it can to evade sanctions. The top U.S. negotiator with Kim’s regime acknowledges that the two sides still don’t agree on what denuclearization might look like or what the U.S. might offer to satisfy him.
Those gaps underscore just how far apart the two sides remain as the clock ticks toward Trump’s second summit with Kim, set for Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28. The differences have led many of Trump’s critics to argue that the second summit will look a lot like the first, which produced a vague set of principles but little tangible progress.
“Although it would be great if the two sides made progress on slowing North Korea’s nuclear program at the summit, the most likely outcome is rinse and repeat,” said Vipin Narang, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Trump’s approach to the summit underscores the top-down style that’s become one of his hallmarks, upending traditional diplomacy that depends on aides to hammer out agreements for leaders to drag over the finish line.
Trump’s supporters say the U.S. has already achieved a lot — including a suspension of missile tests and the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains — and sacrificed little. Hope for a lasting deal, they argue, is higher than it’s been in years. Trump said as much during his State of the Union address last week:
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said as he announced the Vietnam summit. U.S. officials also point out that North Korea is no longer detaining any Americans — and recently released one rather than keep him as a bargaining chip.
North Korea, for its part, can boast that it got Trump to do something: suspend major military drills with South Korea. Before the Singapore summit, Trump agreed to put off annual exercises involving tens of thousands of troops, against the advice of his top advisers and allies Japan and South Korea.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving for the North Koreans,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “We have had no progress on denuclearization. In fact they continue to nuclearize.”
The Singapore meeting, and the plans to hold another summit, are in themselves victories for North Korea. After years of criticism over its human rights record and its development of nuclear weapons, Kim has gained global legitimacy with his outreach to Trump and the South Korean government.
Trump continues to lavish praise on Kim, exchanging warm letters and calling him a leader who can make his country “a great Economic Powerhouse” if he gives up his nuclear arsenal. “He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is,” the president said in a tweet on Friday.
Kim may seek to exploit Trump’s apparent willingness to bend to the arguments of foreign leaders over his own advisers. That was demonstrated during Trump’s news conference in Helsinki last year with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when the American president appeared to give Russian denials of meddling in the 2016 election more credibility than his own intelligence community’s assessments.
A fresh example came in December, when a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan prompted Trump’s declaration that he’s withdrawing U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria.
“Kim’s strategy is to just get Trump in a room,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who’s now at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. “He looks at Turkey and says, ‘Wow, one phone call and he agreed to pull troops out of Syria — that’s a good situation.’ “
Ultimately, the question is whether North Korea is genuinely prepared to give up its nuclear weapons. Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told a Senate panel last month that Kim was unlikely to do that because he viewed “nuclear arms as critical to regime survival.”
A United Nations report last week found that North Korea continues to evade sanctions through illegal ship-to-ship transfers as well as illicit financial activities, according to diplomats who reviewed the report. It also showed that North Korea was working to disperse elements of its ballistic-missile program to shield it from decapitation strikes.
Yet Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has said that Kim has committed to denuclearizing, and officials point to a series of small moves to make that case. In a speech last week, the U.S.’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, pointed to North Korea’s “preliminary steps” to dismantle two test sites, Tongchang-ri and Punggye-ri, even though those efforts took place without international inspectors in place.
“They represent a step in the right direction,” Biegun said. He also said North Korea had expressed a willingness to dismantle all of its plutonium- and uranium-enrichment facilities, beyond the Yongbyon plant he previous offered to shut.
Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of research planning at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said that Biegun and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, appeared more prepared than their predecessors last year.
“Over the past about 260 days between the first and the second summits, North Korea and the United States did not simply waste their time,” Cheong said. “They specified their negotiation strategies and refreshed their teams of negotiators to prepare to advance the negotiations.”
In his speech, Biegun argued that the U.S. would seek “concrete deliverables” from the Vietnam summit, and “at some point” wanted a “comprehensive declaration” of the regime’s nuclear stockpiles. That was a softening of the U.S. position that such a full accounting must come at the start of the process, a notion North Korea has dismissed as offering up a target list for U.S. attacks.
If North Korea agreed to tangible steps, the U.S. was willing to offer concessions of its own, Biegun said. A peace declaration and talks to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War are high on Kim’s wish list.
North Korea’s willingness to engage with Biegun — a former Ford Motor Co. executive who they had shut out for months — reflects a significant change in attitude, according Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department intelligence analyst who took part in negotiations with North Korea under President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“To expect too much of the process at this stage is a mistake,” Carlin said in an interview. “People who want to see the endpoint show up now inevitably are going to be disappointed and critical. And it’s sort of ridiculous to be that way.”