As he announced in his State of the Union Address on February 5, U.S. President Donald Trump will hold his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on February 27-28 in Vietnam. First, the significance of Vietnam (possibly the seaside resort town of Da Nang) as choice for their meeting goes far beyond its geographical proximity or political neutrality alone. Vietnam presents the most potent example that U.S. would like Pyongyang to follow. It showcases how two nations having once fought a prolonged bloody war can potentially transform their bilateral equations.
Starting from the early 1980s, united Vietnam’s “Doi Moi” policy of comprehensive economic development saw them normalise their diplomatic relations and then build an enduring economic partnership which is credited for making Vietnam one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. The U.S. today has 880 projects in Vietnam with a total registered capital of about $9 billion and their bilateral trade crossed $54 billion last year.
Second, Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un is being combined with his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is increasingly seen as the newfound mentor of the North Korean leader, guiding every step of his negotiations with the Trump team. Hermit Kim Jong-un has visited China four times in last 10 months to hold extended sessions with President Xi Jinping. Trump’s meeting with Xi also holds significance as the 90-day truce in their ongoing trade war ends on March 1. The two sides are least expected to arrive at any negotiated settlement, which will see Trump spiking his anti-China rhetoric and tariffs from March 2. This means that the Trump-Xi meeting will be held before this second Trump-Kim summit and Trump’s meeting with Mentor Xi may help him fine-tune his tactics in negotiating with Mentee Kim Jr.
Other stakeholders, Japan and South Korea, are both American allies and have worked hard as facilitators as well as much needed cheer leaders for Trump’s “push peace in the Korean peninsula” but China remains the most influential player in determining the success or failure of the Trump-Kim deliberations.
Third, domestic chaos for the Trump team remains equally critical for outcomes of the Trump-Kim summit. As Trump claims, his ‘new bold diplomacy’ has made ‘tremendous progress’ thus justifying his second summit with Kim so as to “continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula.” But such rhetorical statements reignite the puzzle of U.S. withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea, which rattles the confidence of America’s allies and dents Washington’s creditability.
The U.S. negotiations are also weakened by the sustained opposition by a rather vocal American power elite including a whole range of U.S. intelligence agencies openly contesting Trump’s misplaced instincts about Kim. Unlike Trump, Kim Jong-un has complete grip over his domestic situation and Trump’s parleys and praises have only further bolstered his domestic and international standing. No doubt, Trump’s pursuit of direct dialogue with Kim is making commentators see this in continuation to his government shutdowns and his precipitous withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan—even at the cost of putting the Taliban in an interim Afghan government—all aimed at distracting attention from the quirky investigations into Russian meddling into his presidential election, that may see him facing impeachment proceedings.
The world, however, is also beginning to notice the difference between Trump’s rhetoric and reality of his actions or lack of action that allow him space for manoeuvre in the hope of cutting a deal. His building of wall rhetoric, for instance, saw him move from making Mexico pay for it to asking first for $18 billion and then $ 5.7 billion to potentially settling for some symbolic $1 billion for repair works.
Likewise, his Korea policy presents a mixture of animated engagement, staying on with sanctions, plus rhetoric of military action. He prides in telling how Pyongyang has conducted no nuclear or missile tests and has released U.S. nationals since their first summit, which is not quite off the mark. This, however, appears to be a rather generous assessment of his expressed objectives of seeking the complete elimination of North Korean nuclear arsenals before the U.S. makes any concessions. Pyongyang has no doubt reciprocated in retreating from their brinkmanship of 2017 and also effected some symbolic dismantling of facilities. This is in line with the history of all disarmament deals where nations dismantle what they consider ‘outdated’ and already superseded by advanced systems or have become otherwise ‘redundant’ in their strategic calculations. Total unilateral elimination—Trump’s original promise—has happened only in cases of regime change which, in the case of North Korea, has become more remote than ever. If anything, Trump has helped Kim to further strengthen his hold on power by assuring that the U.S. will never threaten the Kim family’s leadership.
Trump has granted the Kim family’s long-held demand for direct talks with a serving U.S. president. This demand had kept Pyongyang as a reluctant participant in the completely ineffective six party talks mediated by friendly China since 2003, which stealthily allowed North Korea to complete its nuclear deterrence reaching as far as threatening the U.S. mainland. This means direct U.S.-North Korean talks were bound to happen irrespective of who entered White House in 2016. But the U.S. has since also shunned any major joint military exercises with South Korea whose President Moon Jae-in remains the guiding force behind both Seoul-Pyongyang and Trump-Kim rapprochement. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un has hit the halfway mark to his diplomatic triumph without giving up anything substantive in return. Vice President Mike Pence is on record saying that U.S. officials “still await concrete steps” towards dismantling North Korean nuclear arsenals that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had claimed, will follow their first summit in Singapore which had ended with Trump tweeting “there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
Recent U.S. intelligence reports believe production work on modernising missiles and uranium enrichment has not just continued but may even be stepped up in coming times. Contradicting President Trump’s rhetoric, his Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, presented his report to Congress recently saying Pyongyang was “unlikely to give up” nuclear weapons because its leadership sees them as “critical to regime survival”. CNN reports UN officials saying Kim is already dispersing and hiding his nuclear and missile assembly, storage and testing facilities.
Compared to the North Korean mystery monolith, a divided house of the U.S. presents divergent trajectories difficult to bridge. For sherpas, this presents a formidable task despite their hectic meetings in the recent four weeks. Starting with Kim Jong-un’s right hand man and former spymaster Gen Kim Yong Chol visiting the White House early January, followed by U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Beigun, holding discussion with North Korean officials in Sweden, to him now being stationed in Pyongyang trying to hammer out some substantive outcomes from this summit.
The first Trump-Kim summit last June was acceptable despite being largely ceremonial because the symbolisms of breaking ice melted into Trump falling in love with the young North Korean leader, while his tall claims were given benefit of the doubt by most analysts. But that’s no longer going to be the acceptable benchmark for their second summit where they must achieve some cumulative movement forward to sustain their dialogue.
But with Pyongyang openly rejecting any unilateral disarmament and Trump refusing to relent on sanctions, even minuscule symbolic confidence-building measures like inspections to verify the status of North Korean facilities seem difficult to come by. And despite all the bravado of his tweets so far, such an outcome is not good news for Trump who is already being questioned by presidential hopefuls for 2020, which will make him increasingly vulnerable and circumscribed both at the hustings at home as also in pushing the peace agenda with North Korea’s leadership.
(The author is professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal)