SEOUL: While many observers criticised the agreement signed at last year’s summit for its vague language and total lack of binding pledges, others (myself included) argued that the summit was worthwhile as a step toward cooperation between two countries that have been enemies for decades.
But the goodwill between Pyongyang and Washington can’t subsist on positive atmospherics alone, and this time around, the two leaders will have to reach an agreement of some substance.
Trump will attempt to get North Korea to commit to verifiable steps toward denuclearisation, while Kim’s main priority will be winning relief from the sanctions strangling North Korea’s economy.
Both sides are therefore fighting an uphill battle, but, of the two, Trump has the more challenging task ahead of him. Kim need not worry about journalists or political opponents calling attention to any shortfalls.
Unlike Kim, Trump is the leader of a democracy with a free press, and all of his moves will be scrutinised at home, not least by a Congress now controlled by Democrats. At the same time, a perceived foreign policy victory would be a welcome distraction from a litany of domestic challenges.
Trump will have to come out of Hanoi being perceived as having prodded Kim closer to denuclearisation without having yielded too much in incentives. Here are a few steps he can take toward that objective.
PUSH FOR NORTH KOREA TO PROVIDE A LIST OF ALL THEIR NUKES
After the last summit, Trump declared that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. In fact, Pyongyang still possesses at least as much nuclear material now as before that meeting, and still has not provided a roadmap or timetable for getting rid of any of it.
This week, Stanford University released research indicating that they have continued to produce plutonium and enriched uranium.
North Korea has still not even clearly spelled out how many weapons of mass destruction they possess, the specifications of those weapons, where they are stored and other relevant details.
In an ostensible illustration of its commitment to denuclearisation, North Korea did last year dismantle a testing facility, but has not explained the status of the weapons they have on hand.
Before agreeing to reward North Korea in any way, Trump should insist on that kind of disclosure.
If the US asks the North to make clear just how many nuclear weapons they have, and the North refuses, that will be a strong indication that the North Koreans are not negotiating in good faith, and have no real intention to denuclearise. And if the talks end with no significant progress, Trump will be able to credibly point to that refusal as an explanation for the lack of results.
AS A CARROT, OFFER TO CALL OFF MILITARY DRILLS WITH SOUTH KOREA
Though he has walked back talk about pulling US troops out of South Korea, Trump can save the US some money, and please his North Korean counterparts, by offering to refrain from holding the annual military drills that practice defending South Korea from a possible North Korean attack.
Some of the annual drills the US holds with South Korea’s military have already been scaled down or suspended over the past year of good vibes.
North Korea routinely decries the exercises, and threatens retaliation if the US or South Korean troops get too close to their border.
Offering to keep such drills toned down or called off would be a goodwill gesture and would not compromise US credibility, as the US would maintain its commitment to defending the country through its network of bases in South Korea.
Also, South Korea’s left-leaning government would appreciate an excuse to forego the drills, as many in the current administration view them as counterproductive to the bigger task of rapprochement with North Korea.
Win, win, win.
FOCUS ON DENUCLEARISATION OF NORTH KOREA, NOT THE 'KOREAN PENINSULA'
The Singapore agreement stipulated that the two sides would work toward denuclearising the peninsula as a whole, and not much of the English-language coverage of the summit spelled out what that means to North Korea.
Even though the US doesn’t keep nuclear weapons on the peninsula, South Korea still falls under the US “nuclear umbrella”, meaning that the US is committed to using its nukes to defend South Korea, if necessary.
North Korea therefore interprets “denuclearisation” as the US military withdrawing from South Korea.
It might be impossible for the two sides to fully agree on what complete denuclearisation really means, but at the Hanoi summit at least, Trump ought to make clear that a total withdrawal of US troops from South Korea is not on the table, and that if North Korea wants any of the “corresponding measures” it has been talking about, some steps toward denuclearising, such as the disclosure of weapons mentioned above, must come first.
PUT FORTH A POSSIBLE FRAMEWORK FOR FUTURE, LOWER-LEVEL DIALOGUE
Summits get the attention, but the real work of diplomacy takes place behind closed doors.
Stephen Biegun, the US’s top diplomat assigned to North Korea negotiations, recently travelled to the North Korean capital where he held meetings to prepare for the summit in Hanoi. After leaving North Korea, he said that “hard work” was still needed before the summit.
That was a polite way of saying that the two sides are still far from reaching an agreement.
Despite the pressure to reach a breakthrough in Hanoi, it’s unrealistic to expect any monumental result. Trump should therefore suggest the establishment of a regular schedule of meetings between diplomats from the two sides.
At those meetings, negotiators would be able to tackle the real questions of denuclearisation away from the glare of the spotlight. The continued dialogue could build momentum towards the US and North Korea establishing formal diplomatic relations and opening embassies in each other’s capital city.
While denuclearisation is still a long way away, and may never happen, Trump is correct when he points out how over the past year North Korea has cooled its rhetoric and held back from any provocations. There is a generation of young people coming of age in North Korea who could come to see the US as a potential partner instead of an enemy.
That is valuable, and two summits aren’t enough to undo decades of antagonism.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.