If all goes as planned, President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27 and 28 to, once again, discuss Pyongyang’s ballistic and nuclear weapons programs. And until then, Trump administration senior officials are trying to temper expectations.
In a call with reporters on Thursday, State Department officials could not share if they knew how North Korea would define “complete denuclearization.” In fact, one official said, “I don’t know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize.”
“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” said one of the officials, making it clear that no agreement may come from next week’s summit at all.
When asked if Special Representative Stephen Biegun, who arrived in Hanoi on Wednesday, will be in the room on one or both of those days and if at least partial transcripts would be provided, the senior official could not speak to either, saying arrangements were still being finalized.
Indeed, the Trump administration is largely keeping mum on the negotiations, much to the dismay of lawmakers, who on Thursday fired off a letter to the administration reiterating their frustration with the lack of transparency in the negotiations.
The latest statements are also a seeming reversal of the administration’s previous position on North Korea. Last month, Biegun gave a speech at Stanford in January that gave observers hope that the administration might back off of its all-or-nothing strategy, opting for a step-by-step approach instead. But on Thursday, the State Department official speaking to reporters dismissed that notion, saying the U.S. was not interested in incremental steps, and wanted to take “very big bites.”
So what can we expect from the summit?
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, is “skeptical but hoping for the best” about the Hanoi summit.
But he cautioned that “there are more ways that this meeting can go wrong than right.”
In order for Hanoi to be a success, Kimball said each side will have to agree to action-for-action concrete steps. That means North Korea needs to stop producing fissile material for weapons and stop developing their ballistic missile capabilities.
In return, Kimball figures North Koreans will want at least limited sanctions relief and a trilateral declaration (to include South Korea), declaring the end of the Korean War.
“I hope they’ve learned from their mistakes,” he said of the Trump administration, adding that he thinks the president might recognize that these on-and-off talks can’t go on indefinitely — certainly not while North Korea continues to build its nuclear program.
There are two things that are different about the previous meeting the two held in Singapore last June. This meeting is scheduled for two days rather than one. Also, unlike the previous summit, months of working-level meetings precede this one.
Still, there is the risk that one side will ask for more than the other is willing to concede. For instance, demanding the North Koreans provide a complete inventory of their nuclear materials and facilities without offering something of equal value to them in return won’t work.
“Hanoi summit is the best and maybe the last opportunity to make some real progress,” said Kimball. Big bites might be possible, he explained, provided there are “reciprocal steps.”
But there is a trust deficit, and that can’t be overcome without incremental steps.
Although the president essentially returned from Singapore empty-handed, that summit was still important, said Kimball, because “it established that the U.S. was interested in denuclearization and peace, not just denuclearization.”
But there’s not much talk of peace, with reporters being told by two senior officials on Thursday that this was currently “not a subject of discussion” and was “not discussed” so far in negotiations, so much as a “pathway to peace” in general.
Abigail Stowe-Thurston, research assistant for the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said despite the state of things, “there are positive, measurable things” that can be achieved.
The uneven nature in which the United States is treating Iran versus North Korea, she said, might send some mixed signals.
“Iran has been complying with the [Iran nuclear deal] and yet the administration elected to withdraw from that agreement for whatever reason they had,” she said.
“I have to imagine that the North Koreans have noticed that this administration has developed a pattern or habit of withdrawing from international agreement, and that plays into their calculus of what to agree to and what not to agree to,” she added.
While Trump values bilateral relations and treats each new deal or broken treaty like a siloed project, partners and adversaries alike take note. And, said Stowe-Thurston, this is “likely to erode any sense they would have that the U.S. would uphold any agreement.”
A lot has happened since Singapore
Although Pyongyang and Washington haven’t made much progress in the nine months or so between Singapore and Hanoi, the world has not stopped.
Recent events might change the landscape of those talks:
- South Korea over the weekend agreed to pay more to keep U.S. military bases there. U.S. troop presence in South Korea and joint military exercises with Seoul, have been cited as existential threats and the reason Pyongyang is reluctant to disarm.
- According to U.S. intelligence, North Korea is unlikely to disarm. In fact, Pyongyang has continued to amass fissile materials.
- The Trump administration on February 1 announced that it would pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, which withdrew the following day.
- The United States reimposed painful sanctions on Iran, which had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear agreement. Under the deal — signed with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany — Iran curtailed the scope of its nuclear enrichment activities in exchange for sanctions relief. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency has found Iran in compliance with the agreement after regular, stringent inspections.
- China is reportedly considering abandoning its no-first-use rule over tensions with the United States in the South China Sea.
“Certainly it’s a time of extraordinary unsettlement in the globe, and this has been an extremely disruptive presidency,” said Ambassador Laura Kennedy, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. She pointed to the president’s penchant for hurling insults at world leaders and U.S. lawmakers on Twitter as making his presidency “an enormously public one.”
The president’s record of withdrawing from pacts — the INF, the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and NAFTA — she added, are also an issue.
Although there is little doubt that Russia was, in fact, violating the agreement, Trump pulling out of the treaty and failing to “take the right road” now means that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF becomes the focus rather than Russia’s cheating.
There’s little doubt that Trump has made most of these decisions to gain points with his local base, having won the presidency on promises of tearing up deals he felt did not sufficiently benefit the United States.
“Why would Kim enter a deal if there is doubt that the U.S. would follow through. That said, he has entered a diplomatic track with the U.S. On the other hand, they know the immense military power we have at our disposal and they are a pariah nation,” said Kennedy.
The Singapore summit was seen as a huge PR win for North Korea. Not only did Kim get photo ops with the American president, he also flew back home while Trump held a long, rambling press conference.
So President Trump can’t come back with another short, vague agreement from Hanoi, said Kennedy, which means he is unlikely to listen to anything other than the voice in his head telling him to deliver a deal.
The president’s worst instincts might ultimately be his saving grace, because as he’s laying the groundwork for a potential 2020 run, he needs an indisputable foreign policy win, which he does not have at the moment.
Trump, said Kennedy, might see this “as his best hope for a legacy.”