What's at stake at the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at their summit in Singapore. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Washington, DC, USA Feb 27, 2019, 05.03 PM (IST)

As US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un prepare for their second summit in Vietnam, analysts say the top-down approach to diplomacy may help ease the difficult negotiations which have made little progress since their historic summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader, where they pledged to work toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

"Trump, while this is an unconventional approach especially for America in terms of doing diplomacy top-down summit-driven incrementally-paced is actually more effective when working with the North Koreans and working with a very top-down system. So there is some room for him to claim success on building a different starting to build a different relationship with North Korea and opening a door to a very real opportunity. It's not helpful for him to overstate where we are. Certainly North Korea's nuclear capabilities have not changed yet and their military capabilities have not changed yet. And until it does, certainly that threat is still there," said Stimson Center analyst and Managing Director of 38 North, Jenny Town.

The Trump administration has pressed North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, which threatens the United States, before it can expect any concessions. That means elimination of all weapons of mass destruction programmes in North Korea - the production of those weapons, as well as the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can deliver them.

North Korea has publicly called for an end to the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations, which will be its main aim at the summit. But its concept of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula could include removal of the US nuclear umbrella for South Korea and nuclear-capable forces.

Some officials in South Korea, the US Congress and elsewhere have expressed concern that North Korea is calling for changes to the level of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, but Trump said on Friday that drawing down US troops in South Korea is not on the table.

North Korea has also long called for a peace deal with the United States to normalise relations and end the technical state of war that has existed since the 1950-1953 Korean War concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Town is hopeful that concrete steps will emerge from the second summit, specifically that Pyongyang will allow visits at Yongbyon nuclear facility after Kim expressed willingness in September to take steps, including the permanent dismantlement of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, in return for "corresponding measures" by the United States.

As the United States will seek to form a shared understanding with North Korea of what denuclearisation means at the summit, Washington is also expected to seek to establish a roadmap that sets expectations and the process for negotiations on denuclearisation beyond this week's summit.

Victor Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Trump has much political capital at stake in the negotiations. While agreeing that the US president's strong personal interest in negotiating with the North Koreans was promising, he warned that the North Koreans are likely to offer a number of hollow steps.

"They are things that they've already talked about giving up and in fact have stopped operations right after the Singapore summit. And you know my guess is that they're going to allow the United States or some international body to go in and sort of monitor this, the decommissioning of the of these sites. And as we saw in Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech in January, he has put forward the idea of stopping further production in the future, as well as a pledge not to transfer any capabilities or knowledge. So if you think about those things, that is negotiating your past-- things that you don't need anymore-- and it's negotiating your future-- things you promise not to do in the future. So you're actually not really giving up anything. And in the meantime I'm pretty certain they're going to be clear demands for the United States to give up things very much in the present whether that's exercises, whether it's the deployment of troops, sanctions, a variety of different things," he said.

CSIS Korea Chair Sue Mi Terry said that as Pyongyang seeks the removal of economic sanctions, it will probably put three things at the table: Punggye-ri nuclear test site, Sohae satellite launch site and some, but perhaps not all, of Yongbyon. She said she expected them to go no further in a process she said resembled an arms agreement more than a denuclearization process, and to stall for the next several years as the sides negotiate the details of those three sites. Terry warned that Trump may be too willing to give up too much in exchange for a process that did not include full denuclearization.

"North Korea is not going to go beyond that. I think these three sites are going to be good enough from North Korea's perspective to just drag this out ... and that's going to be enough to last the entire Trump administration. And I think that is North Korea's game plan," she said.

While a freeze on North Korea's weapons of mass destruction and missile programs is also likely to be on the agenda, North Korea appears to have produced enough bomb fuel in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, a report by Stanford University's Centre for International Security and Cooperation said earlier this month.

Washington has balked at signing a comprehensive peace treaty before North Korea completely denuclearises, but US officials have signalled they may be willing to conclude a more limited agreement to reduce tensions, open liaison offices, and move toward normalising relations.

"On the US side, I think it's a little less clear but there has been some indications coming from the administration or through leaks to talk about some of the things that they've been considering such as an end of war declaration, opening up a liaison office, having liaison officers, potentially expanding some kind of cultural or educational exchanges, potentially some level of exemptions for specific inter-Korean economic projects as well," she said.

Kim said in January that North Korea is "ready to re-open Kaesong industrial park and tours to Mount Kumgang without any preconditions or price." The two inter-Korean projects require at least partial easing of sanctions to resume operations.

Still, experts warned that the top-down approach could backfire if at any time, Trump seems to suggest further U.S. concessions than what the negotiators have agreed upon.

"In many ways, I think that it's both what's in the document and is President Trump consistent with what's in that because if he's not, Kim Jong Un wIll see no reason to follow the letter of what is in a statement and wIll just go with where President Trump goes," she said.

As the two sides negotiate, the long shadows of Russia and China hang over the talks. Town warned that regional powers will be watching closely any possibility of shifting political alliances.

"Any kind of progress on that side will be sort of a double-edged sword for the Chinese and the Russians who obviously want negotiations to keep going but also do worry about where loyalties lie as those relationships start to change. I think the Japanese of everyone in this process are probably the most nervous about success or failure because they're less involved and they haven't been part of the inner circle of states negotiating," she said.

The high-stakes nuclear summit is set to take place in Vietnam's capital of Hanoi on February 27 and 28.

Story highlights

The Trump administration has pressed North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, which threatens the United States, before it can expect any concessions. That means elimination of all weapons of mass destruction programmes in North Korea - the production of those weapons, as well as the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can deliver them.