Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un faces high expectations

February 25, 2019

HANOI, Vietnam This time around, President Trump faces higher expectations.

Eight months after his breakthrough meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump this week heads into the second denuclearization summit under greater scrutiny to bring back more tangible results from the high-stakes parley in Vietnam.

Some analysts expect an agreement that would require North Korea to freeze its production of fissile material at its Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, used to make nuclear weapons. It’s not clear what Mr. Trump is willing to give in return.

Their first meeting in Singapore produced vague promises from Mr. Kim to abandon his weapons programs, but there has been scant progress on that front since then despite months of follow-up talks between the two sides.

The U.S. “didn’t really get anything out of that Singapore summit, just an aspirational statement,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and chair of the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can argue that not much has really changed.”

Bruce Klingner, a specialist on Korea at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said recent North Korean public statements “indicate the two sides are no closer to even having a common definition of denuclearization, let alone a comprehensive detailed agreement.”

But former CIA officer Andrew Kim, who helped negotiate last year’s breakthrough meeting, said he expects more progress from the second summit.

“The stars kind of have lined up,” he said in a speech Friday. “I have come to believe we have a great opportunity to engage with Pyongyang.”

When the president sits down with Mr. Kim for two days of talks starting Wednesday in Hanoi, he will try to pin down the reclusive communist autocrat on his definition of “denuclearization.”

To U.S. officials, it means complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of Pyongyang’s weapons programs. But a senior administration official acknowledged that one of the goals sought by the White House at the second summit is “developing a shared understanding of what denuclearization is.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that North Korea is still a nuclear threat, although “tensions are reduced.”

“We’ve got work to do on the denuclearization,” Mr. Pompeo said. “There are many things [Mr. Kim] could do to demonstrate his commitment to denuclearization.”

He said Mr. Trump is focused on “a demonstrable, verifiable step” from North Korea.

Former Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, who served as special U.S. envoy to six-party talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006, said the most important objective is “clarity on the nuclear issue.”

“I think at this summit, North Korea has to hear that again that the U.S. is resolute,” Mr. DeTrani said. “And does North Korea agree with that? What is their definition of complete denuclearization? Describe it any way you want, but now you know clearly where we are. There’s no ambiguity on the U.S. side.”

Speaking of the need for clarity, security analysts say the White House has been sending mixed messages about its goals for the summit. Mr. Trump said last week he feels no urgency to make a deal with Mr. Kim, pointing out that sanctions are still in force and that North Korea hasn’t conducted a nuclear or missile test in well over a year.

“I’m in no rush,” Mr. Trump said. “There’s no [weapons] testing. As long as there is no testing, I’m in no rush.”

The administration’s announcement that it is seeking a “shared understanding” of denuclearization with North Korea seems at odds with comments by U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun last month.

In a speech, Mr. Biegun said North Korea has committed “to the dismantlement and destruction” of all its uranium- and plutonium-enrichment facilities. He said the pledge goes beyond the Yongbyon nuclear plant.

Lowering expectations even more, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that simply sitting down for a second summit is an achievement.

“The fact [that the president] is able to do it again is in itself a big success,” she said.

But having broken the ice last year with the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and North Korean leader, the world now expects more from the relationship.

Without mentioning the possible easing of sanctions, the White House is promising unspecified economic benefits if Mr. Kim is willing to commit to a more firm plan for denuclearization.

“The president has made clear that should North Korea follow through on its commitment to complete denuclearization, we will work to ensure there are economic development options,” the White House said.

Richard Johnson, senior director for fuel cycle and verification at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said a freeze on producing enriched uranium and plutonium is “a starting point.”

“This is not going to happen in a year, this is not going to happen in two years,” Mr. Johnson said. “The essential next step is a fissile material production freeze.”

A senior administration official expressed frustration that news coverage of the lack of progress with North Korea is “completely divorced from policy.”

“It’s not that the North Koreans are advancing their weapons of mass destruction program despite our diplomacy,” the official said. “Our diplomacy is precisely because of what the North Koreans are doing, and this is why the president has placed such a high priority on convincing the North Koreans to make a different set of choices.”

While the U.S. is approaching the summit with firm expectations, Mr. DeTrani said the North Koreans are looking for room to maneuver around sanctions. He suggested a deal might not be possible unless the U.S. is willing to respond in an “action-for-action spirit.”

“If the sanctions are in place until complete, verifiable denuclearization, that means North Korea’s not going to be able to trade, they’re not going to get the energy assistance, the crude oil from China,” he said. “You’ve got to respond simultaneously. And we have to talk about that. Are we going to look for workarounds on the sanctions? Are we going to say there are exceptions for humanitarian aid? Are we going to say there are exceptions for energy assistance that may go to hospitals and orphanages? They need to hear from us on those issues.

“These are the major points,” Mr. DeTrani said. “And if they can agree on these points ... within three months we can have a road map on how we can accomplish all of the [denuclearization goals] with certain timelines. That would be a pretty powerful summit conclusion, I think.”

Other results from the summit could include a declaration by the U.S. of an end to the Korean War, in which an armistice was signed in 1953; the opening of a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang; and an expansion of efforts to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the war.

Some observers have expressed concern that Mr. Trump could go off script in Hanoi and promise to withdraw about 28,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. He has repeatedly expressed disagreement with the deployment, saying it’s too expensive and that South Korea should pay for it.

Ms. Terry pointed to Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement last year that he planned to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria despite opposition from then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. She said while there is “no support in the U.S. government to pull troops out of South Korea, I don’t have faith in President Trump,” and she fears he might “do what he wants to do without coordinating with his advisers.”

“That’s truly the wild card. That’s my biggest concern,” she said.

One official said withdrawing roughly 28,000 U.S. troops from South Korea “is not the subject of discussions.”

“I’ve never discussed that in any round of negotiations,” the official said.

Leading up to the summit, Mr. Biegun and his North Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, arrived in Hanoi late last week for their latest round of talks on the details of a possible agreement.

Mr. Trump will arrive in Vietnam on Tuesday and is expected to hold meetings with top Vietnamese officials during his visit. Mr. Kim also is expected to hold meetings separately with Vietnamese leaders before negotiating with Mr. Trump.

The North Korean leader reportedly is planning to travel by train from Pyongyang across much of China to Hanoi, a 45-hour trek. For the summit in Singapore last year, Mr. Kim flew on a jet loaned to him by the Chinese government.