Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Expectations are low for the February 27-28 Hanoi nuclear summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but each party has considerable interest in a successful summit moving beyond mere proclamations of success.
Mr Trump has said the continued cessation of nuclear testing by the DPRK will suffice for the Hanoi summit to be successful, stopping short of the fundamental U.S. demand for full denuclearisation.
Mr Kim is looking for U.S. and UN economic sanctions on North Korea to be lifted. The DPRK is also calling for a peace deal with the U.S. to normalise relations and end the technical state of war, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Vietnam was chosen as the venue for the summit in the hope that it could illustrate the potential for economic resurgence to Mr Kim. But the devil will be in the details.
North Korea was prompted to cease carrying out further nuclear or ballistic missile tests since the Singapore meeting last year (its last test was in September 2017), but it has taken no concrete or verifiable steps towards dismantling its nuclear program. Mr Trump has falsely claimed there “is no longer a nuclear threat” since Singapore.
Instead, North Korea has taken its efforts underground, pressing forward with its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. It appears to have produced enough bomb fuel in the past year to add up to seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, according to a report by Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation.
Analysts have similarly warned that maintaining the status quo will result in a bolstered North Korean nuclear arsenal. Mr Trump, for his part, appears to be content with a reduction in tensions for their own sake, suggesting that he’s in “no rush” to achieve denuclearisation.
Moreover, concepts of denuclearisation will likely differ. Full denuclearisation, meaning the elimination of all WMD programs, their production and the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can deliver them, remains Washington’s objective despite Mr Trump’s political need for a more cosmetic foreign policy success. The DPRK’s concept includes the removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea and changes to U.S. troop levels stationed there.
The parties may have to settle for a “shared understanding” in Hanoi, including a roadmap that sets expectations and the process for negotiations going forward and an agreement that freezes the DPRK’s WMD programmes (for example, its development of plutonium). A limited but solid agreement could include moving towards normalising relations.
Mr Trump’s advisers say the process needs to “move quickly” and that they are not certain whether North Korea has truly decided whether it is in its interests to denuclearise. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment is that North Korea is unlikely to ever agree to abandon its nuclear programme.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers during a public hearing last month it was “unlikely” that North Korea would “completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
Such assessments irritate Mr Trump, who fears they will compromise his summit with Mr Kim. Even among the president’s top foreign policy advisers, there are significant doubts and disagreement about the direction of talks with North Korea and concerns Mr Trump is overly eager for a deal and will make too many concessions.
Conversely, a collapse of negotiations could mean an end to the reconciliation process of the Koreas, or to what is arguably the best chance yet to restrain the North Korean nuclear programme, which in turn could yield a return to the “fire and fury” rhetoric of 2017 between Washington and Pyongyang. It is therefore wise to look at current options that have a chance of cementing relations in the longer term.
An under-discussed but highly important instrument at Mr Trump and Mr Kim’s disposal is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-ban Treaty (CTBT). The legally binding treaty, which bans nuclear testing everywhere and has a $1 billion global verification regime to detect nuclear explosions, still requires ratification by eight countries to enter into force, including the U.S. and the DPRK.
True to the Trump administration’s habitual disdain for multilateralism, the U.S. stated in its 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review that it would not pursue CTBT ratification despite being a signatory (but would abide by its own moratorium on testing). However, North Korea, which is not a signatory nor a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), could act in its own strategic interest and offer to accede to the CTBT, underscoring the seriousness of its efforts to denuclearise.
It has already expressed interest in joining international efforts to ban nuclear testing.
It is in every party’s interest to hope for summit’s success. This means considering all options, including international regimes such as the CTBT. Mr Trump may yet develop a taste for multilateralism if it can help yield the kinds of foreign policy successes he desires – and needs.
Update (February 28): Low expectations were confirmed when the summit ended abruptly on its second day, short of a planned agreement-signing ceremony. Mr Trump suggested Mr Kim wasn’t making a generous enough offer in terms of its extent of denuclearisation in exchange for its demand for a full lifting of economic sanctions. “Sometimes you have to walk away,” Mr Trump said. Better preparation, however, on behalf of the American president may have yielded better results, but Mr Trump has likely been distracted.
Image: Official Meeting of Trump and Kim, June 2018 (Wikimedia Commons)