American President Donald Trump announced in his State of the Union Address on February 5, 2019 that he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on February 27 and 28. Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam was later confirmed as the venue of the summit. The forthcoming summit is the second one after Trump and Kim met in Singapore on June 12, 2018. The first summit had eased the tension between the United States (US) and North Korea, but there was no concrete details or timetable regarding the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – except for the statement made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the issue is expected to be solved before the end of Trump’s term in 2021.
Trump mentioned in his State of the Union Address that his approach to North Korea has contributed to regional peace, North Korea has stopped testing nuclear weapons and missiles for more than 15 months so far. Another progress of the first Trump-Kim summit is the return of American soldier remains in July 2018. North Korea worked according to the summit agreement by handing over 55 American servicemen bodies to the US. Also, in July 2018, analysts cited the satellite image of “38 North” website that North Korea removed a launching site for developing ballistic missile. It suggests Kim may attempt to show a good faith after meeting with Trump.
But a wide gap exists between the two sides. South Korea’s newspaper Chosun reported that North Korea requested the US to sign a peace treaty in ending the Korean War after transferring the American war dead. Washington insists that Pyongyang must submit a full list of nuclear stocks and weapons as well as the location of ballistic missiles beforehand. In August 2018, Trump suddenly called off the visit of Pompeo to North Korea by accusing Kim of not having done enough in denuclearization. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that the US has no plan to suspend military exercises with South Korea in the long run.
North Korea’s attitude softened then. When Kim met with South Korean envoys in September 2018, he expressed the determination to settle the denuclearization issue during Trump’s term of office in 2021. And Trump received Kim’s letter in the same month for inviting him to the second Trump-Kim summit. Pompeo met with Kim in Pyongyang in October 2018 for the summit preparation. However, the second Trump-Kim summit was not yet confirmed and finalized until Kim traveled to Beijing in January 2019 to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is the same pattern, in that Kim wants to secure the understanding and support from Beijing first before meeting with his American counterpart. Kim went to Beijing twice in March and May 2018 before the first Trump-Kim summit and one more time in June 2018 right after the summit in Singapore.
Possible Agenda of the Second Trump-Kim Summit
Given the first summit’s lack of details on the denuclearization process, special attention should be given to the possible compromise between two sides such as the reciprocal responses from the US if North Korea is willing to close its nuclear facilities. The US previously insisted on a comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible and dismantling (which is also known as CVID) denuclearization process of the North Korean nuclear capabilities. And Washington demanded North Korea to hand over all nuclear weapons and materials before lifting the sanctions. This is not likely on the agenda of the second summit as North Korea considers this not a reciprocal negotiation.
The US has indicated possible reciprocal responses. In November 2018, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, spoke publicly that there could be some military changes on the Korean Peninsula if the denuclearization negotiation goes well. But Dunford did not elaborate the changes in details. The possible changes could be lowering the scale, minimizing the frequency, or even ending the joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, which North Korea considers as provocative. Trump indeed ordered a suspension on the joint military exercise for a while after the first Trump-Kim summit.
Another negotiation item at a higher level could be reducing American troops in South Korea. Depending on Kim’s acceptance and compliance, withdrawal of American forces in South Korea could be a long term or ultimate goal for offering incentives to Kim to give up nuclear capability. Trump has long criticized the American global military expenses, and he is now recalling soldiers from Afghanistan and Syria, even as such policy is being criticized by the American Congress and international community who fear the revival of the Islamic State in the region. Mattis quit his post of Defense Secretary in a protest to Trump.
Trump sees American stationing forces in South Korea as a burden. On February 10, 2019, Washington reached a deal with Seoul by asking South Korea to bare more cost on the American deployment. South Korea already shared 40 percent of the cost in 2018 worth USD 830 million; the new deal requires Seoul to pay USD 924 million in 2019. The US-South Korea deal should be a five year agreement, however it turned out to be a one year arrangement only. The implications are twofold. One is to facilitate the coming second Trump-Kim summit; the second is that the future American military deployment in South Korea is subjected to change according to the result of Trump-Kim direct negotiation in Hanoi.
According to South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo, other American reciprocal responses include the setting up of liaison office in Pyongyang and partial lifting of sanction for letting North Korea import oil. The most important American gesture came on January 31, 2019. Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, indicated that the full list of nuclear stocks and weapons is no longer the prerequisite for denuclearization negotiation. The American flexibility offers much more bargaining spaces for the two sides.
On the North Korean side, after sending a letter to Trump for the second Trump-Kim summit invitation, Kim told South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September 2018 his plan to close the Yongbyon nuclear complex. And the process would be open for international inspections if there are reciprocal responses from the US. Currently in North Korea, there are still 5000 American war dead remains because of the Korean War. A large scale recovery may also be launched, which can serve as a goodwill policy for helping Kim to build trust and confidence with Trump.
The challenge remains as whether the agenda can accommodate a mutually satisfactory implementation time table on the nuclear dismantlement procedure, roadmap and timeline. Another problem is how could both sides understand reciprocal response? The US represented by Pompeo was criticized by North Korea in July 2018 for being too greedy by demanding too much without any offering. The second summit may be just another minor step that both sides attempt to clarify and negotiate the pre-conditions on denuclearization. The signing of a peace treaty in ending the Korean War and the normalization of US-North Korea relations may be the ultimate goals.
The Chinese Motives and Maneuverings Behind
China has been regarded as a major actor on the Korean Peninsula for its leverage towards North Korea. Apart from historical ties, China is the biggest trading partner of North Korea by covering more than 90 percent of its trade. North Korea also depends heavily on food and energy imports from China.
China has posed tremendous pressure on North Korea since March 2017. Beijing proposed a dual suspension policy; it suggested that North Korea stop missile and nuclear tests, while the US suspend military exercises in the region. But North Korea ignored the Chinese suggestion by having missile and nuclear tests in July and September 2017 respectively. Thereafter China tightened sanctions, cancelled flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, closed the friendship bridge across the Yalu River, banned Chinese tourists to visit North Korea, and even cut the seafood trade along the border. North Korea’s diplomatic shift and the breakthrough in the Winter Olympics in February 2018 were indeed the result of harsh treatment from China. Kim then expressed that North Korea is willing to adopt the dual suspension policy. A summit was held between North and South Korea in April 2018, and the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018.
China has won back the initiative and dominance over the North Korea nuclear crisis since 2018. Kim went to Beijing for support and advice before his summits with South Korea and the US. A video showed Kim taking down notes as Xi talked. After the first Trump-Kim summit, Kim met with Xi in Beijing again in June 2018. Xi addressed three points. First, the attitudes of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government for reinforcing China-North Korea relations will not be modified regardless of the regional and international circumstances. Second, China-North Korea friendship will not be changed. Third, Chinese support on North Korea’s socialism will not be altered as well. Right before the announcement of the second summit, Kim visited Beijing again in January 2019. Xi made four supporting statements. First, China supports the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Second, Beijing upholds improving relations between North and South Korea. Third, China supports the possible outcomes of the second Trump-Kim summit. Fourth, Beijing advocates the related parties to solve the dispute through dialogue and consultation. Xi’s statements have showed Chinese involvement in shaping the North Korea nuclear crisis.
China would not allow any further provocative policies from Kim, which have already invited the American installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea. The THAAD could also detect launching missiles from China, which greatly undermines China’s missile capability and nuclear deterrence. It is in China’s national interest to see the withdrawing of American troops and the removal of THAAD from South Korea, if Kim can reach a deal in the second Trump-Kim summit for denuclearization with positive American reciprocal response. This is probably the reason why both China and North Korea use the term of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since China shares the same interest with North Korea on the reciprocal responses from the US, adding that China reckons its continuous friendship with Pyongyang, the Xi-Kim meeting has enhanced North Korea’s bargaining power in the second Trump-Kim summit. Trump noticed Beijing influence on Pyongyang very well as he named Xi “a world-class poker player” before the first Trump-Kim summit.
Responses and Cooperation between China, South Korea, Japan and Russia
While the US is the major player along with Pyongyang in the bilateral talks, it takes place in the context of the history of the six party negotiations. For all intent and purposes, however, South Korea and China play a heightened role as intermediaries to ensure the two parties kept talking. South Korea’s Moon is extremely active in playing this role. But the bilateral talk between the Trump administration and Pyongyang would not be possible without the acquiescence of Pyongyang’s most important patron, Beijing. China is generally supportive of both the first and second Trump-Kim summit. In the First Trump Kim summit, this was especially pronounced and there were many signs to indicate China’s strong support. First, Beijing played a constructive role in cooperating with South Korea and the US in bringing Pyongyang to the table. And Beijing was also a party to the United Nations (UN) sanctions against Pyongyang for repeated missile testing and nuclear explosions. Some of these missiles even flew over Japan’s Hokkaido airspace.
The Possible Reciprocal Negotiations in the Second Trump-Kim Summit
Note: The table presents possible negotiation items of both the US and North Korea, but these do not necessarily match each other on a parallel basis.
Second, logistically, Beijing also assisted in the process by flying Kim in an Air China plane to Singapore with fighter jet escorts along the way. Such support was crucial given three difficulties. First, Pyongyang only had an old Soviet era private jet plane to ferry Kim to Singapore and many were worried about the viability of the old plane. Second, the Kim family is well known to have a fear of flying, only to be later dispelled when he flew in his private jet to China and in an Air China Boeing to Singapore. Third, Pyongyang was worried about security in the first Trump-Kim summit. By giving such high-level support, it indicated that Beijing was trying its best to facilitate the process in operational terms. Before the first Trump-Kim summit, Kim met up with Xi in Beijing as well as on a beach where they were seen strolling together. Even in terms of the negotiations, Beijing made known its interests in the talk directly to Kim.
Third, Beijing was also hopeful for the talk to ease the sanction against North Korea. Like South Korea and other members of the six party talks, Beijing was hoping for longer lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and the possibility of investing in Pyongyang when the sanctions are potentially and eventually eased. Beijing is keen to ensure its interests are maintained in any peace deal or denuclearization agreement in the first Trump-Kim summit.
With Beijing’s support and the tireless work of the Trump administration (especially Pompeo) and South Korean’s Moon, the first Trump-Kim summit kicked off in Singapore. While the actual results were modest by standards set by critics of the Trump administration, it achieved several goals. They included the stoppage of the missile tests and nuclear explosions; the return of US Korean War servicemen ashes, the suspension of US-South Korean exercises and the ceasing of belligerent displays of long range missile systems in propaganda parades in North Korea. Thus, Beijing’s role in the first Trump-Kim summit is positive one. In the second Trump-Kim summit, many expected Beijing to play a similarly positive role. The signs are there. In the aftermath of the first Trump-Kim summit, both Beijing and Moscow called on the US to ease sanctions against Pyongyang. Kim also met with Xi to exchange ideas about the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. This appears to follow the same format in 2018 and also shows the sustained influence that Beijing has on Pyongyang.
There are worries that some events in 2019 taking place in other parts of the world may derail Beijing’s support for the Korean Peninsula peace process. Such worries center around the ongoing US-China trade frictions (some may even call it a “trade war”). Fearful that China may retaliate against US trade tariffs, anxious observers watch carefully how Beijing reacted to the news about the second Trump-Kim summit. There are some causes for anxieties. This is specially the case when Kim made the unprecedented announcement over New Year of 2019 that he has an alternative to turn to should the Trump-Kim rapprochement fails. Many read the signal as Kim playing the Beijing card to deal with the US. But, at the same time, Kim offers unusual signs of reconciliation to the US by saying that he is onboard for denuclearization. (Many however continue to expect Pyongyang to ask for concessions at every step of the way.)
Another fear (a somewhat minor one) is regarding the choice of venue for the second Trump-Kim summit. There were a number of candidates, starting from Mar-a-Lago (the US President’s Florida retreat) to Pyongyang, suggested in the second half of 2018. But reality dawned with regards to the preparedness of both venues and soon, it narrowed down to Singapore (second time), Panmunjeon, Stockholm (Sweden), Hanoi (Vietnam). Eventually, Hanoi was the leading candidate. This immediately led to fears that the choice of Hanoi may alienate Beijing, given Beijing and Hanoi has had brushes over the South China Sea, even though both of them belong to the socialist fraternity. Hanoi has of late tilted closer to the US and its alliance network as a counterweight against Beijing. After the final location was announced, some heaved a sigh of relief that there were no problems in this area.
This means Beijing is still a highly constructive partner to the peace process and seemed to be complementary to the goals and aims of the denuclearization process. While China has trade frictions with the US, there are also incentives for it to warm up to other countries in order to hedge against its current difficulties with the US. Thus, when South Korea’s Moon promised to suspend the deployment of the second THAAD missile system, Beijing repaired its relations with Seoul, leading to a co-operative atmosphere between the two.
Beijing has also repaired its relations with Tokyo as well. Even though Tokyo does not feature highly in the Trump-Kim summit, it has interests of its own, including obtaining the accountability of its citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang in the past. Warmer Sino-Japanese relations may not have a direct impact on the denuclearization process, but it certainly creates a positive atmosphere to keep all stakeholders engaged in the peace process.
Implications of the 2nd Trump-Kim Summit
North Korea does not have a decent track record on denuclearization negotiations. However, Xi is not like previous Chinese leaders who could tolerate the provocative North Korean nuclear development. And Trump could be the only American president (at least the only one so far) who is willing to talk and negotiate with North Korea directly. Thus, Kim may understand this is a rare chance for settling the nuclear issue and maintaining his regime.
Regardless of the outcome of the second summit, North Korea is very likely to continue the path of economic development. One driving force is possible Chinese punishment, similar to what Beijing did from September 2017 to January 2018, if North Korea returns to nuclear development. Another driving force is that relations between North and South Korea have reached the highest level since the Korean War.
It seems that China has convinced North Korea that economic development is the only way out. The first indicator is that after the Inter-Korean summit in late April 2018, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun visited the North Pyongan district in North Korea to study possibilities for more civilian exchanges with China’s Liaoning province. This suggests that China-North Korea relations have begun to improve, with Beijing’s recognition of Kim’s shifting policy by abandoning assertive military policy. Before the first Trump-Kim summit, South Korea’s Korea Joong Ang Daily quoted an internal source that Kim requested in front of Xi for comprehensive support in facilitating North Korea economic development. Kim hoped that Chinese corporations in Shandong and Liaoning provinces could invest in Pyongyang, Nampo, Chongjin, and Sinuiju.
The first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was not a coincidence. Kim attempted to send a strong signal to South Korea, China and the US with regards to its determination on economic development. Choson Exchange, a non-profit organization in Singapore, held economic policy training workshops in Pyongyang and small scale MBA courses in Singapore for North Korean officials and business people. Kim will arrive in Hanoi on February 25, 2018, 2 days before the second Trump-Kim summit, to visit the industrial port city Hai Phong and the manufacturing city Bac Ninh respectively. Thus, Kim is sending a consistent message on economic reform to the major audience: firstly China then the US.
The improving inter-Korean relations also offer Kim a higher chance for the survival of his regime. South Korea has planned to invest USD 267 million in North Korea for improving infrastructures such as roads and railways which could better connect with South Korea. With China’s carrot and stick policy and South Korea’s support, North Korea has greater incentive to make a progress in the second Trump-Kim summit. Kim invited Xi repeatedly to visit Pyongyang since March 2018. Xi also accepted the offer but the trip has not yet been finalized even after the first Trump-Kim summit. Perhaps China is still observing North Korea’s determination and consistency on economic development. And Kim definitely would like to make sure the second Trump-Kim summit goes well.
Two uncertainties remain, the first one is the understanding of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The American military deployment, the THAAD in South Korea and even the US theatre missile defense (TMD) with the cooperation of Japan and the radar and launching system in Alaska could constitute to the complete denuclearization of Korean Peninsula. Could both the US and North Korea easily reach a final deal on “denuclearization”?
Given that North Korea has already tested its nuclear devices up to six times, Pyongyang may have already acquired necessary data for making nuclear weapons. The removal of nuclear materials and facilities as well as the delivery system such as ballistic missiles could hardly mean a complete denuclearization. Worse still, Washington may accept a pro-US unified Korea, which has nuclear capability. Trump made relevant statements before he assumed the office, that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves. This could relieve the American security burden, but complicate the security environment in the region.