The choice of Vietnam for the second Kim-Trump summit has been intentional to send Pyongyang the strongest of messages that former bitter enemies can transform their relationship to one of cooperation, reconciliation and friendship. Simultaneously, Washington’s willingness to work with Vietnam’s communist government signals to Pyongyang that through a commitment to denuclearize and normalization of relations with Washington North Korea can also retain its regime.
Through the showcasing of Vietnam’s economic development and pragmatic approach to diplomacy as evidenced by its signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and the forging of strategic partnerships with Japan and potentially the United States, Washington hopes that North Korea will gain confidence that U.S. denuclearization negotiations are sincere in their intention to offer Pyongyang an opportunity to realize sustainable economic development in exchange for ceasing and relinquishing its nuclear and missile programs.
Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership understand these signals as they have demonstrated themselves to be rationale actors throughout the Trump administration’s North Korean diplomacy as well as that conducted under the Obama, Bush and Clinton presidencies. In each case, North Korea practiced surgical-like diplomacy, extracting concessions from the U.S. while offering little in return except for a lull in provocative behavior. It did this at the same time it continued its consolidation of the regime.
Despite bilateral and multilateral commitments, Pyongyang has successfully realized its decadeslong nuclear weapons quest and the diversification of its weapon and delivery systems as a strategic deterrent. With regime security a fait accompli, Pyongyang is negotiating from a position of strength in its talks with the Trump administration.
Can the Hanoi summit offer enough inducements to shift Pyongyang’s strategic calculus? The short answer is no.
First, North Korea is not merely a state that has nuclear weapons. It has spent decades constructing a deeply corrupt and militarized state with no robust or well governed institutions save perhaps for the military establishment. The military acts as the cohesive that keeps the state barely intact, supports the regime and manages operations to acquire hard currency through clandestine drug smuggling, weapons manufacturing and other elicit activities, including managing the draconian songbun (class) system that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens in concentration camps through the country.
An agreement to denuclearize will necessarily mean invasive verification that would reveal the extent of the regime’s human right abuses. Accusations of crimes against humanity would no doubt be launched by human rights organizations against the Kim regime. Any serious agreement between Washington and Pyongyang would need to inculcate a very distasteful clause stating that the U.S. would not pursue legal cases related to crimes against humanity. While the Trump administration may be willing to do this considering its questionable track record on human rights, it’s hard to believe that it would get support in Congress or could prevent other actors from launching legal cases against the regime.
Second, another challenge to the process has to do with disentangling the military from the economy. This includes transitioning the military into jobs that don’t exist (yet) that provide the same benefits, stability and preferential access to society. Who will pay for the restructuring of the North Korean economy: South Korea, the U.S. or Japan?
South Korea’s slowing economy and demographic challenges dictate that it will not be in a financial position to unilaterally fund the restructuring of the North Korean economy. The Trump administration would likely offer assistance from the private sector but a mini-Marshall plan for North Korea is extremely unlikely.
Japan as well would not be able to justify any financial support outside the cost of denuclearization and the removal of chemical and biological weapons. This would necessarily include full transparency with regards to denuclearization but also on the unresolved abductee issue.
Third, the denuclearization of North Korea will require buy-ins from regional stakeholders. China and Russia may both be able to live with Pyongyang retaining some kind of minimum strategic nuclear deterrent. In fact, that is China’s own nuclear posture at this time, making it hard for Beijing to demand that Pyongyang adopts a nuclear policy different from its own.
South Korea understands that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are not targeted at Seoul or Pusan but at the U.S., so its priorities are de-escalation, expanded exchanges and economic engagement. Japan, on the other hand, is concerned about existing and future nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, delivery systems and the direction of the political development of the peninsula.
Lastly, the U.S. remains most concerned about nuclear ICBMs that could not only reach U.S. military assets throughout the Pacific, but also the continental U.S. as well.
Any bilateral agreement in Hanoi could not cover these different interests without prior and intensive consultation and agreement. To date, this has not happened and it is difficult to conceive of meaningful progress without this essential diplomacy.
Fourth, Pyongyang would demand security guarantees from stakeholders and a declaration of the end of the Korean War. Both would dilute the rationale for continued U.S. troops in South Korea and the region. While the former may be possible through cooperation with China, South Korea and perhaps Russia, the latter would have consequential negative impact for the U.S.’s decades-old networked alliance architecture in the Indo-Pacific and competing with China.
With so many obstacles, we are left with the conundrum of what kind of agreement could be realized in Hanoi?
The answer to this question is mostly informed by the U.S. political calendar for the 2020 presidential election and President Donald Trump’s political troubles at home, and less by what happens in Pyongyang. After all, Pyongyang’s strategic patience allowed it to acquire a strategic nuclear deterrent and put it in a position to receive two summits with Trump, four with Chinese President Xi Jinping and four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Without a substantial agreement in Hanoi, we are likely to see Pyongyang retain its nuclear strategic deterrent for the foreseeable future while it continues its long- standing modus operandi of extracting concessions for modest compromises.
A deal that could set the groundwork for a mutually agreed upon and incremental denuclearization process could include a full accounting of nuclear weapons, a detailed timeline to allow for international inspectors to begin the denuclearization process, a declaration to the end of the war, and even the handover of a small number of nuclear weapons and associated systems as a sign of good will.
While in the realm of possibility, these are unlikely considering Pyongyang’s long-standing track record and the numerous variable outline above.
Lastly, overshadowing both scenarios is the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign and/or the revelations associated with the Mueller investigation of the Trump administration. If the Mueller investigation conclusively finds the president embroiled directly or indirectly with the Russians, any momentum garnered during the Hanoi summit will evaporate as domestic political infighting to remove the president from office will prevent the administration from dedicating the needed time and bandwidth needed for the detailed and long-term diplomacy that is required for denuclearization to be successful.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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