The central question surrounding the second U.S.-DPRK summit seems to be if the outcome may be different this time, and if President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may walk away with a more substantive agreement than that which came out of the Singapore summit last June.
This stems from a rocky inter-summit period defined by another round of meeting cancellations, a continuing war of words, and even ongoing disagreements over the definition of denuclearization.
The two sides find themselves eight-and-a-half months out from the first Trump-Kim meeting having achieved small steps in trust-building, but with the agreement to hold a second summit itself arguably the most significant sign of progress.
But while the last few months have seen a flurry of activity mostly surrounding plans for the second summit and producing little publicly besides date and location details for the meeting, a lot has happened since last summer which may inform the possible outcomes from Vietnam.
So how did we get from Singapore to Hanoi?
SINGAPORE AGREEMENT OUTCOMES
The Singapore Agreement contained four points, the first two committing both sides to improving relations and establishing peace, the third memorably only vaguely covering denuclearization, and the fourth committing the two to POW/MIA remains recovery work.
President Trump also spoke of additional, unofficial items in a post-summit press conference, telling reporters the U.S. would halt “war games,” referring to joint military exercises with South Korea, and that North Korea had committed to destroying a “missile engine testing site.”
These all built upon previous perceived concessions the U.S. continues to tout as achievements contributing to the present bilateral relationship, such as the return of “hostages” (U.S. citizens held prisoner in North Korea) and the halting of nuclear and missile tests. Indeed, all of the above points have since been addressed in some way.
After demolishing nuclear test tunnels at Punggye-ri in late May in the presence of foreign journalists but not technical experts, the North followed through with apparent promises to Trump by dismantling rocket engine test stands at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
The U.S. also followed through with unofficial promises from Trump, initially cancelling major joint military drills set for August and later announcing more cancellations in October. And as far as the “hostages” go, North Korea even repatriated an American in November just a month after he was initially arrested for illegally entering the country.
In terms of tangible progress, the most successful outcome has been cooperation between the two sides on recovering U.S. war remains from North Korean soil.
The DPRK returned 55 boxes of remains in July, which have so far resulted in the identification of three soldiers by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in Hawaii.
Additional discussions over joint recovery projects may occur during the Vietnam summit as well, as the two sides have been preparing to begin joint work on the ground in North Korea this spring.
But as the U.S.’s central goal, denuclearization has remained the biggest sticking point in bilateral talks since Singapore – a rocky road which has seen both more specialized discussions with the appointment of special envoys, but also the return of so-called “letter diplomacy” between Trump and Kim largely taking over the process.
A ROUGH START
The first high-level U.S.-DPRK talks after Singapore came in Pyongyang in early July, where Secretary of State Pompeo traveled to meet senior official Kim Yong Chol and pick up where the agreement left off. Following two days of talks, however, the North’s foreign ministry released a statement characterizing U.S. demands as “unilateral and gangster-like.”
Pompeo brushed the comments off, however, sticking to the U.S. position on prioritizing denuclearization and rejecting that any disagreement existed over the definition of denuclearization.
At an annual ASEAN conference in early August, Pompeo said the DPRK was still “in violation” of UN sanctions and that he believed there was still “a ways to go to achieve” denuclearization.
North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho likewise signaled the remaining divide, saying the U.S. was “raising its voice louder for maintaining the sanctions against the DPRK” and backing away from its Singapore Agreement commitments.
It briefly appeared that the U.S. had taken a step in the right direction later that month with the appointment of Stephen Biegun, a former executive with Ford Motors and staffer with the White House’s National Security Council, as Special Representative for North Korea in late August.
Another trip to Pyongyang for Pompeo was announced during the same briefing introducing Biegun, but this trip was canceled by Trump the very next day, who said he felt the U.S. was “not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
SECOND SUMMIT OR BUST
It began to emerge just a few days later that hopes for actual progress may depend solely on another Trump-Kim summit, as the White House confirmed on September 10 another exchange of letters between the two leaders primarily concerned with the “schedule [of] another meeting,” which both sides were “already in the process of coordinating.”
Pompeo added to the positive projections after meeting DPRK foreign minister Ri on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in early October, where he announced he would finally make another trip to Pyongyang that month to make progress on “the final, fully verified denuclearization of the DPRK” in addition to discussing plans for a second summit.
Biegun joined Pompeo for the short trip on October 7, which resulted in more allusions to another Trump-Kim meeting as well as vague joint promises to make progress on Singapore Agreement points.
Biegun’s next test would come with a trip to Seoul in late October, seen at the time as coming amid growing distance between Pyongyang and Washington on the negotiating process. There, he and South Korean officials agreed to create a joint working group on North Korea, which held its first official meeting in Washington in late November.
But adding to the negative atmosphere was an editorial released by DPRK state media appearing to suggest for the first time since the current process began that the North may consider restarting its nuclear development if the U.S. did not loosen its stance on sanctions.
And when it appeared Pompeo would be meeting Kim Yong Chol again in early November in the U.S. amid arguably the lowest point in relations since Singapore, there was another abrupt cancellation of talks, this time reportedly owing merely to scheduling issues.
A brief winter chill of sorts set in, with a mid-December trip to Seoul instead of Pyongyang for the U.S. Special Representative Biegun, and comments earlier in the month from National Security Advisor John Bolton again seeming to lay all hopes for progress on the next summit.
Following Kim Jong Un’s first direct mention of his own hopes for a second summit during his New Year’s Address, the two sides finally got together again with a whirlwind week of talks across Washington and Sweden.
Kim Yong Chol once again met Trump in the White House on January 18 to deliver a letter from Kim Jong Un, after which the U.S. officially announced the two leaders would meet in late February, not disclosing the date or location – items which appeared to still be up in the air.
Over the next few days, Biegun met in Sweden with both his North and South Korean counterparts, and was also introduced to his new DPRK counterpart Kim Hyok Chol, later revealed to have been appointed Special Representative for U.S. affairs from the State Affairs Commission, replacing the role of Choe Son Hui from the foreign ministry.
President Trump finally announced during his State of the Union Address on February 5 that the summit would take place February 27-28 in Vietnam, revealing Hanoi as the precise location a couple days later.
The mood was positive and talks were occurring again with relative frequency. Biegun even went to Pyongyang for three days of talks following the summit announcement, though U.S. officials stayed mum on details beyond vague references to summit preparation, denuclearization, and improving the bilateral relationship.
The stage was set and officials were off to Vietnam nearly a week early to hold additional marathon talks. But while the two parties have cultivated a positive mood leading up to the meeting, questions remain over how they will reconcile their respective positions on sanctions and denuclearization in particular.
SANCTIONS ENFORCEMENT PUSH
We can see how the two sides engineered a second summit as the next biggest opportunity for progress, but it is important to recall that despite softer language from the U.S. over sanctions as of late, the much-touted talking point that “sanctions remain in place” is true, evidenced by a range of new unilateral measures in the time since last June.
The U.S. sanctioned firms, individuals, and ships in August for doing business with North Koreans or helping the North evade existing sanctions. They sanctioned an infamous hacker and IT companies in September, a Turkish firm said to be engaged in weapons smuggling in October, and South African money launderers connected to the DPRK in November.
Top North Korean official Choe Ryong Hae was even the subject of targeted sanctions in December for his alleged role carrying out human rights abuses in the country. U.S. officials meanwhile continued to publicly and privately pressure allies to maintain sanctions pressure.
Sanctions continued to be a key complaint from North Korea over the winter as the two sides stepped up preparations for the next summit. The aforementioned “working group” established in late October drew immediate criticisms from North Korea for being seen as another venue for the U.S. to place sanctions pressure on South Korea, interfering, state media suggested in early January, in inter-Korean cooperation.
But the first real sanctions relief action (more of a re-tuning of enforcement standards) was also taken by the U.S. during this time, paving the way for over a dozen new humanitarian exemptions from the UN Security Council committee in charge of sanctions in the first 45 days of 2019.
Then there were the multilateral operations at sea led by the U.S. and involving six allies to catch North Korea in the act of conducting ship-to-ship oil transfers in violation of UN sanctions, also drawing criticisms from the North.
But when Japan reported in late January on further such activities, North Korean state media responded by focusing its ire entirely on Japan, suddenly sparing the U.S. despite its leading role in the operations.
But as Bolton suggested in January that some sanctions could be lifted in exchange for “significant” steps achieved at the upcoming summit, followed by similar comments from Pompeo in the days before the Hanoi meeting, it appears North Korea may not have to prove complete denuclearization before the U.S. begins to loosen some sanctions measures.
After his meetings in Pyongyang last July, Pompeo insisted that the North Koreans had “not challenged” the broad definition he provided them, which includes actions on “weapons systems to fissile materials to the production facilities, enrichment facilities, across the range of weapons and missiles.”
But a bombshell commentary released by North Korean state media in December turned the tables, suggesting it would not denuclearize until the “complete elimination of the U.S. nuclear threat” against them.
Hours later, Pompeo appeared to soften the U.S. stance away from complete denuclearization, presenting a new talking point which would become a mainstay of his interviews in the coming months: that the key goal through negotiations would be “creating a reduced threat” from North Korea’s nuclear weapons specifically to U.S territory.
Just days before the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi, Pompeo repeated the talking point again, saying he was hopeful the “ultimate end state” of talks would be in part “reducing the threat to the United States from the nuclear weapons that are today in North Korea.”
But perhaps the most revealing moment since Singapore of the U.S. position came in a surprisingly candid speech from Biegun at Stanford University in late January, where the top negotiator admitted the two countries still need to form an agreed definition of denuclearization. He also said the North could expect more concessions from the U.S. “simultaneous” to unspecified action on denuclearization.
HOURS TO GO
It has all led to this, the second meeting between a North Korean leader with a new image fresh off multiple trips to China, a summit with the Cuban leader, and perhaps most importantly continued progress in the inter-Korean arena, and an American President seeking a win amid an ever-increasing number of scandals at home.
The message for months now has been that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un need to sit down face-to-face in order to achieve real results for their two countries’ relationship.
Events in the time since Singapore suggest the trajectory of negotiations may hang on their personal relationship for some time to come.
But with well-established channels at the working level through special representatives Biegun and Kim Hyok Chol emerging more recently – likely doing the brunt work on agreement details – and talk of potentially establishing liaison offices in their respective capitals through the summit this week, the period before a possible third meeting may just break the pattern displayed before the first two.
Featured image: White House (left), KCNA (right)
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