Image by Dan Scavino Jr.
By John Park, reporting from Seoul; edited by Andrew Doris
In just a few days, President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un for a second summit in Hanoi. This follows the Singapore summit of June 2018, at which Trump and Kim signed a historic joint statement that vaguely reaffirmed a previous commitment to work towards denuclearization. A much more detailed agreement is anticipated at the Hanoi summit.
First Summit Recap
The joint statement issued at the Singapore summit made four key points:
1. The United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
The first two points merely express diplomatic pleasantries while the fourth is unrelated to denuclearization (albeit the only solid promise with a tangible result). The third point makes no mention of a timeline nor of what denuclearization exactly entails. In other words, the principal issue of how to resolve the biggest security threat on the Korean Peninsula remains unresolved. This probably explains the busy traffic of U.S. and North Korean diplomats flying to Hanoi early to meet before the meeting.
What to Expect?
Seated at a conference table with bottled water, coffee, and translators, men in suits will discuss what each side wants and can offer, in hope of reaching a deal both are willing to accept. Bargaining assets may include public or private assurances, policy concessions, the levying or removal of sanctions, agreements for facility inspections, technical assets such as light water reactors, political capital (via photo ops or otherwise), troop withdrawals, cessation of joint military exercises, diplomatic normalization, and many more.
While there is a wide range of issues on which progress can be made, the irreversible, zero-sum, and possibly regime-fatal nature of denuclearization ultimately makes meaningful compromise difficult to reach. Experts know that the long arc of historic efforts to denuclearize North Korea has bent towards ineffectiveness, breakdown, and failure.
Every new concession, no matter how small, seems to be aggrandized as “historically unprecedented.” This is no accident: the hermit state is unrivaled in its shrewdness and skill as a political chameleon. Ever since North Korea built its first nuclear facilities in the 1980s, it has avoided making any irreversible concessions to its program despite so many “historically unprecedented” moments.
Even after the Singapore summit, North Korea maintains multiple nuclear weapons and continues to operate undeclared missile bases. Whatever “concessions” the North Koreans appeared to make in Singapore, they retain significant leverage for any future deal. This week’s summit is yet another chance for them to demand more for nothing.
Some experts believe Kim genuinely wants to develop North Korea, which may require lightening the sanctions that have decimated the North Korean economy. Kim recently purged 50 to 70 wealthy Pyongyang elites in what appeared to be a crackdown on opponents of his diplomacy with Trump, as well as a desperate attempt to extract foreign cash. If the North really is intent on not only surviving but thriving, they should give more than vaguely worded assurances this time around.
Even so, the existential threat the North feels without the security of nuclear weapons, the immense geopolitical pressure to retain the status quo in Northeast Asia, and the pattern of disappointing results every time hope seems to be on the horizon stand as mammoth obstacles to a productive meeting. While the mostly inconsequential results of the first summit can be excused as “a start”, the second summit carries an expectation to build on that momentum, increasing pressure on the current administration to finally break the stalemate. Yet increased pressure does nothing to lessen those obstacles, giving abundant cause for cynicism.
What Do South Koreans Think of the Summit?
The South Korean government under President Moon Jae-in has emphasized reunification as the end goal. Moon has used the détente between Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington to push an ambitious foreign policy agenda of enhanced cooperation and improved relations between the Koreas.
Yet despite the grave security implications and historic magnitude of the approaching summit, South Koreans seem more worried about a sluggish economy at home. Dramatic minimum wage increases have arguably contributed to high unemployment and compounded a gloomy economic outlook. The sliding economy has taken a toll on Moon’s approval rating as disenchanted South Koreans feel he is too focused on foreign policy, neglecting domestic issues.
The dip in economic growth corresponds with a rise in pessimism regarding the Hanoi summit. Surveys conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank, indicate that “most South Koreans are pessimistic about the likelihood that North Korea will denuclearize.” This is in contrast to last year, when a separate Asan report citing Gallup Korea polls showed that “71.8 percent of South Koreans believed that the [Singapore] summit had achieved positive results, while only 21.5 percent disagreed.” The majority of South Koreans (62.6 percent) also believed that North Korea would follow through at that time. The fact that optimism was high after the Singapore summit despite the lack of real progress in denuclearization efforts suggests the photo op had more impact on public opinion than the actual specifics of the joint statement issued.
Despite the rise in pessimism, poll numbers continue to indicate a general sentiment that South Koreans view the U.S-North Korean summit as a sign of progress. According to Asan, a “majority (54.6 percent) is hopeful that a deal between the U.S. and North Korea may lead to the eventual denuclearization of North Korea in the foreseeable future.” Historical precedent may beg to differ, but a realist can still hope.