The 2nd Trump-Kim Summit: Incremental Progress towards Needed Diplomacy
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leaving Pyongyang Station, North Korea, for Vietnam. (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
By Stephen R. Nagy

The 2nd Trump-Kim Summit: Incremental Progress towards Needed Diplomacy

Feb. 25, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The Hanoi Summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump on February 27-28, 2019 is likely the last window of opportunity for real progress in the North Korea denuclearization drama and also in establishing the basis for an incremental normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Saliently, this process may or may not include comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).   

Questions remain as to how sincere the North Koreans are regarding denuclearization and will the Trump administration be stable and focused enough to translate the rhetoric of rapprochement into a long-lasting peace? There are also different views as to the suitability of the “Vietnamese Model” in terms of bringing Pyongyang out from its long years of diplomatic isolation.

Suitability of “Vietnam Model”

The choice of Vietnam for the summit is an attempt to convey to the leadership in Pyongyang that former enemies can become economic partners and burgeoning friends. Importantly, the “Vietnam” model of modernization and reconciliation highlights that the normalization of relations can allow for the Kim regime to remain in power while at the same time, develop their economy and engage with the international community.

Superficially, Vietnam appears to be a pathway for North Korean reform in that Vietnam today has strategic relations throughout the region and has even joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (“CPTPP”) to step up economic reform and to be part of the most progressive free trade agreement in existence.

In the security spheres as well, today Vietnam hosts US aircrafts at its ports and we are seeing a deepening of the quality and quantity of its strategic partnerships with Japan, Australia and India.

Despite these achievements, Vietnam as a model for reconciliation and modernization is imperfect. The DPRK is a highly corrupt state, run by the military and centered on a cult of personality. It retains prison campus and the dreaded songban class system that rewards or heavily penalizes citizens based on their proven loyalty to the Kim regime.

This contrasts with the Vietnamese government during the initial stages of the Doi Moi opening period. At the time, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) was organized nationwide and institutionally committed to a modernization journey that was not wedded to paranoid concerns about regime security or cantered on a cult of personality.

North Korea’s paranoid security concerns and the nature of its corrupt and cult of personality dynastic state make the Vietnamese model less realistic when comparing the national conditions of each state during their reform and opening period.

Real Progress since the First Trump-Kim Summit?

Since the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, Pyongyang has conceded nothing to Washington and by most accounts has continued to refine uranium and plutonium for weaponization. While there has been a moratorium in missile launches and nuclear testing, both are likely being continued through simulations. The hiatus in missile and nuclear testing also strongly suggests that the strategic objective of acquiring a strategic nuclear deterrent has been achieved, explaining Pyongyang’s shift towards diplomacy and attempt to realize the economic pillar of its byungjin mantra of parallel nuclear and economic development.

Rather than becoming more open to the idea of denuclearization, Pyongyang has likely consolidated its gains and is now returning to its sophisticated and predictable modus operandi of extracting food and energy resources as well as sanctions relief from the US and regional stakeholders for very modest concessions.

With the new Congress and more potentially damning findings from the Mueller investigation, Trump’s ability to drive any negotiation process is likely going to be weakened if not delegitimated, especially if there is any conclusive evidence linking him to the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Recent revelations about North Korea secret bases for intermediate-range missiles provides further evidence that North Korea’s duplicity is consistent with its long and practiced track record of hiding its capabilities and engaging disingenuous diplomacy. This revelation is further evidenced by comments by Thae Yong-ho, a senior North Korean diplomat and defector, asserting that Pyongyang’s negotiating strategy is premised on deception and extracting concessions from Washington such as sanction relief and the reopening of the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial plant and Mount Kumkang for tourists in order to accrue hard capital for the regime.

Prospects for an Agreement?

For the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, we should expect an agreement light on details and heavy on rhetoric that both states are willing to work towards through mutual, incremental confidence building measures.

Optimists believe that a breakthrough can be made by Trump and Kim. Pessimists like myself argue that Pyongyang’s track record, its paranoia over regime security and the interests of regional stakeholders cannot be addressed through summit diplomacy. 

Rather than a “deal”, only long term, engaged and back door diplomacy between experts on both sides can find a compromise to achieve the long-term goal of denuclearization and a normalization of relations.

With the right inducements, Pyongyang may, however unlikely, provide an accounting of their current nuclear stockpile in exchange for modest sanctions relief. Both parties may also agree to a formal end of the war between them to be used as a starting point for further negotiations.

An important step to illustrate a real commitment to diplomacy and recalibrating the relationship would be the formal establishment of a Liaison Office in North Korea in which daily contact and trust building dialogue could be engaged between Pyongyang and its Washington counterparts.  

Currently, Washington is in talks to establish a liaison office in Pyongyang. If it is realized, the long road to some form of denuclearization will have begun in earnest. It represents a realization in the Trump administration that behind the scenes diplomacy and not kabuki summit diplomacy is the appropriate road to achieve any substantial rapprochement and denuclearization.

While these remain possibilities, the devil is in the details and it will become increasing difficult to find a compromise between the two states as Pyongyang’s nuclear strategic deterrent becomes the center of the negotiations. 

Furthermore, in the case that a process of verification does begin in earnest, there will also be revelations concerning the degree and widespread nature of the egregious violations in human rights by the Kim regime. Exposure of these crimes will do doubt usher calls for the Kim regime to face charges of crimes against humanity. These calls could derail the denuclearization process or at least prolong it indefinitely until guarantees of clemency could be given to the Kim regime.

The window for breakthrough diplomacy is narrowing quickly. With the new Congress and more potentially damning findings from the Mueller investigation, Trump’s ability to drive any negotiation process is likely going to be weakened if not delegitimated, especially if there is any conclusive evidence linking him to the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

This domestic political turmoil will likely push Pyongyang back to its traditional facilitators, China and Russia. At the same time, Pyongyang will continue its engagement with South Korea, making further US-DPRK diplomatic negotiations less important and Pyongyang’s retention of a discrete strategic nuclear deterrent more concrete.

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