The first summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim last June in Singapore was a success in terms of being the first ever meeting between the serving leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. However, the resulting joint statement lacked substance and was more a vague rehashing of previous commitments rather than something concrete that the parties could practically work towards – namely denuclearization and establishing a peace regime.
Over eight months on from the previous summit, this time it is necessary to have more substance to any agreement if the summit in Vietnam can be claimed to be a success.
One of the major challenges faced is that there is no agreed roadmap with a clear time plan between the main parties. Whereas the U.S. has demanded North Korea’s complete denuclearization before lifting sanctions or signing a peace treaty, Pyongyang favors an action-for-action approach in which both sides move together by trading corresponding measures. This difference in approach has led to a stalemate in negotiations.
It would appear, however, that the U.S. has signaled a shift in approach somewhat. In a speech at Stanford University on January 31, the U.S. special representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun acknowledged that it was not the case that Washington would “do nothing” until Pyongyang “did everything.” He further articulated how a peace treaty and full denuclearization would be the end goals of any process.
Realizing that a full and comprehensive settlement is out of reach in the short term, what then could be the outcome of any deal signed in Vietnam?
North Korea is ready to reduce, or maybe even limit, its ability to further develop nuclear weapons. As made clear by Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s Speech, it is clear that North Korea is willing not to test, make, use, or proliferate nuclear weapons.
But while having committed on paper to “complete denuclearization,” absent from this pledge is mention of North Korea’s existing stockpile of weapons. Indeed, without far reaching security guarantees and political and economic normalization, it is highly unlikely – if ever – that full and irreversible denuclearization is achievable in the foreseeable future. Indeed, its nuclear arsenal fulfills a crucial component its security strategy.
Furthermore, increasing divisions between China, the U.S., South Korea, Russia, and Japan has increased the maneuvering space for North Korea in which it no longer faces a coordinated policy of “maximum pressure.”
Notwithstanding, it appears likely that North Korea could propose to shutter its main nuclear fissile production center at Yongbyon (and potentially other research installations) – a willingness it expressed already in the Pyongyang Declaration between the two Koreas last September. It could also offer to demolish some of the known missile test launch sites and commit to international inspections of such.
A more remote possibility is that North Korea could commit to a reduction of or even destruction of its long-range missiles suspected of being able to hit the U.S. mainland – which is of direct concern to Washington, even if its regional allies would be alarmed that focus on such would leave its other missile capabilities intact.
In any case, it would appear unlikely that North Korea will agree to declare a full list of its nuclear and missile programs together with the locations of relevant facilities – as demanded by the U.S.
But should North Korea agree to some of the more modest denuclearization measures above, what might it demand in return?
North Korea is likely to demand a peace treaty, or at the very least an “end of war declaration” or normalization agreement (including potentially establishing liaison offices in each other’s capitals). The U.S. could potentially agree to the latter two, but the practical implications of such would depend on the details of any agreement.
The U.S. military presence in and around the Korean Peninsula has always been a major concern for North Korea. But suspension or downscaling of military exercises aside, it is largely unthinkable that any substantial changes to the U.S.-South Korea alliance or full-scale drawdown of troops will be entertained.
Lifting of sanctions is likely to be another core demand. Yet, viewed as an important tool of leverage over North Korea, any significant rolling back of sanctions by the U.S. is unrealistic. Any such move would also encounter stiff resistance in Congress among other quarters.
It is more likely that Trump, by signaling willingness to grant certain sanctions waivers, will open up space for discussions between South and North Korea on economic cooperation, as well as possibly provision of greater humanitarian aid to North Korea and discussions with the IMF and other financial institutions.
Devil in the Detail
In sum, there is all the potential of Trump touting the summit as having reached the “best agreement ever.” But in reality, the devil will be in the detail of what, how, and when it will be implemented. Without a clear roadmap with a timeframe and a stronger sense of trust between the actors, the actual impact will most likely be modest even this time. This said, the engagement between the leaders has its own importance and increased contacts between U.S. and North Korean government officials could lead to increased trust and real working-level progress – a precondition for what is likely to be a long and arduous process ahead.