After their first meeting a year ago, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a 400-word statement long on goodwill and short on detail. Trump will need more than that this time to credibly claim a success.
At the two-day summit in Hanoi, experts are looking for specific commitments from North Korea toward halting its nuclear program, with deadlines and procedures to verify that Kim does what he says. Trump meanwhile must avoid giving up anything too valuable in return.
Ideas on the table appear aimed at building trust: Issuing a peace declaration, limited sanctions relief for Kim’s isolated regime, establishing diplomatic representation in each country. What’s key, though, is for North Korea to offer up something real that it hasn’t promised — and backtracked from — over the course of past negotiations.
“A fair marker is that the North Koreans have to put something on the table that they genuinely have not put on the table before and deliver on that,” said James Carafano, the director of foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “It’s unrealistic to think this is going to deliver some complete process and we’re done here.”
For his part, Trump dismissed the speculation on Wednesday.
Below are some guidelines to help gauge whether the summit meets expectations.
At the top of the wish list for Trump’s supporters and detractors alike — absent a North Korean promise to give up its nuclear weapons entirely — is a declaration that reveals all of the country’s nuclear stockpiles. So far, assessing the North’s capabilities has been educated guesswork. Total disclosure would back up the Trump administration’s contention that Kim is genuinely ready to give up his weapons.
Beyond that, some experts would take limits on enriching uranium or plutonium. They also want to see North Korea allow inspectors into the country so any commitment it makes can be verified.
“I’m definitely interested in constructive action that limits or stops the amount of fissile material that North Korea can produce,” said Melissa Hanham, a director at the One Earth Future Foundation. “But this will just be a piece of paper unless it’s implemented, and I don’t think a handshake will carry it through.”
Even if North Korea makes no such promises, many experts would be happy if Trump and Kim agreed on the definition for that mouthful of a term — “denuclearization” — at the center of decades of tension between the two countries.
The U.S. says denuclearization means North Korea agrees to gives up its nuclear weapons program. North Korea argues that the term should include U.S. action too — such as removing strategic bombers from Guam, and no longer including South Korea under its nuclear umbrella in Asia.
Having a shared understanding of what denuclearization means could at least offer reassurances that the U.S. and North Korea are debating the same thing.
“If it’s going to take us four or five meetings just to close the gap in terms of how we define denuclearization, then the process really isn’t a process,” Victor Cha, a former U.S. National Security Council official who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told reporters last week.
Putting commitments down on paper is one thing. Forcing the two sides meet deadlines for those promises is another.
The U.S. position on how quickly negotiations with North Korea should advance has varied wildly. Kim himself has never said how long he expects the talks to extend. After the first summit, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said denuclearization should be wrapped up by the end of Trump’s first term. Trump has said that as long as Kim abstains from weapons tests, he doesn’t care how long the process takes.
North Korea will almost certainly seek to exploit that ambiguity and push for the process to drag on. That way, support for the U.S. campaign to isolate the country steadily weakens. But setting markers for working-level negotiations would help propel talks forward, according to Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department intelligence analyst who took part in negotiations with North Korea under President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“Most important is that the document lays out what should be happening over the next four to six months in terms of detailed negotiations so that the working level has instructions from on high,” Carlin said. “If things get snagged, each side can pull out the paper and say, ‘Look, here’s what your leader agreed to.”’
There is intense speculation that the two sides will sign a declaration agreeing to end the Korean War, and establish “liaison offices” — a partial diplomatic presence — within each other’s borders.
But those ideas are accompanied with anxiety that Trump will win nothing in exchange for a peace declaration — or might even commit to withdraw some of the 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea. Experts generally agree that Kim would see a peace declaration as an achievement to bring home to his own people and tout as a major success — particularly if he gets it without any major concessions to Trump.
“Officially saying that they are not at war anymore is probably fine but on the other hand the bargain hunter in me knows how badly North Korea wants that,” said Hanham, of the One Earth Future Foundation. “I do think the U.S. should extract something for it.”