August 17, 2019
August 17, 2019
One year since the Singapore summit: what’s changed, and what could happen next?
One year since the Singapore summit: what’s changed, and what could happen next?
Experts weigh in on the legacy of the historic June 12 meeting
June 12th, 2019

A year ago today, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump sat down at the Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island for their first meeting.

The talks were historic: the first between a sitting U.S. President and a DPRK leader, made all the more unusual by the enigmatic characters of the two men and the barrage of insults they had traded just nine months before.

Following a day of talks, the two sides produced an agreement, pledging to continue to work towards improved relations and to meet again.

But 12 months on, DPRK-U.S. diplomacy has largely stalled: in the wake of the two leaders’ failed second summit in Hanoi in February, lines of communication have faltered — though both sides appear increasingly open to another meeting.

So was the Singapore summit worth it? One year later, what did the talks really achieve? And with both sides seemingly at loggerheads over sanctions and the nuclear issue, is it time for the two men to meet again?

The following experts responded in time for NK News’s deadline:

  • Andray Abrahamian, Koret Fellow at Stanford University
  • Ankit Panda, Adjunct Senior Fellow at Federation of American Scientists, contributing analyst at NK Pro
  • Chris Green, Senior Adviser, Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group (ICG)
  • Daniel Wertz, Program Manager at National Committee on North Korea (commenting in a personal capacity)
  • Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow, Center for a New American Security and columnist, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
  • Go Myong-Hyun, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
  • Jung Pak, senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies
  • Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association
  • Ken Gause, Director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA
  • Stephan Haggard, regular NK News contributor and director of the Korea-Pacific Program, distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego

It’s now been a year since the historic Singapore summit | Photo: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES


Looking back now, what do you think was the most important achievement of the Singapore summit?


Andray Abrahamian: It created the space in which new types of interactions between North Korea and the United States were possible.

It was symbolically dramatic, of course. And while symbolism isn’t everything, it can create new political spaces: Willy Brandt’s kneeling didn’t bring back the millions of dead Poles, but it did allow countries of central Europe to move past World War II in new ways.


Ankit Panda: From the moment the idea of a summit between Trump and Kim was announced by the South Korean national security adviser in March 2018, bilateral tensions between Pyongyang and Washington that had been fast rising throughout 2017 were reduced. The summit itself sealed in at least a temporary détente that lasted through the remainder of the year, despite continued working-level difficulties between the two sides.

A broader significance of the Singapore summit — one I suspect that will become more appreciated as the event regresses into history — is that it will likely stand as a watershed moment in Kim Jong Un’s broader story of leadership in the DPRK.


Chris Green: The Singapore summit was intrinsically meaningful because it was the first such meeting between the United States and North Korea, fully 65 years after the cessation of the Korean War in July 1953. I don’t know whether that is sufficient to make it an “epochal event of great significance” as the summit declaration claims, but it certainly makes it worthwhile.

Moreover, the holding of the summit opened up a breathing space that was previously unavailable. That space could have been filled with anything that the two parties had wanted, and as such could have led to different and vastly better relations on the Korean peninsula. If that had been the outcome, history would probably have looked rather favorably upon President Trump’s decision to participate.


Daniel Wertz: The Singapore summit markedly changed the tone of U.S.-North Korea relations, putting an end to the personalized vitriol between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that helped to make the tensions of the previous year so dangerous.

The summit also put North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing on a more solid footing. But in the absence of progress on the four pillars included in the summit’s joint statement, either of these accomplishments could prove fleeting.


Duyeon Kim: One noteworthy element of the Singapore summit was that it began a dialogue process in which the President of the United States was given an opportunity to speak directly to the North Korean leader, to test him, to educate him, to gain insight into North Korean thinking and calculations, and eventually strike a good deal if the strategy was right.

The return of American POW/MIA remains was certainly an important outcome, but it was unfortunate that there were no specific agreements on the central issues.


Go Myong-Hyun: First of all, there is the historical significance of the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. Often times a summit with the sitting U.S. president indicates an impending improvement in diplomatic relations, and the Singapore summit created the expectation that the U.S. and North Korea had closed the chapter on more than half a century of hostilities. Beyond the symbolic, the encounter between Trump and Kim created an ad hoc framework for dialogue.

It is not as formal as full-fledged diplomatic initiatives such as the Agreed Framework or Six-Party Talks, but it nonetheless continues to function as a basis for negotiations. The Singapore summit also officialized North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests moratorium. For what it’s worth, Kim’s restraint has lasted more than a year and a half, which is a considerable achievement given how belligerent North Korea was throughout 2017.


Jung Pak: Given the marginalization of inter-agency processes, the revolving door of key national security officials, and President Trump’s unpredictability and unconventional style, I think the most important accomplishment from the past year has been the resilience and professionalism of the intelligence and working-level bureaucratic apparatus amid multiple whiplash-inducing changes in policy.

Kim’s debut probably also helped the intelligence community glean more insight into his personality and leadership style, so I see that as a plus.


Kelsey Davenport: While the language agreed to by Trump and Kim in the Singapore summit declaration was vague and ambiguous, the document recognized that progress toward denuclearization must go hand-in-hand with building peace and security in the region and that a transformed relationship between Pyongyang and Washington is necessary to achieve these goals.

This recognition is the most important achievement of the summit to date because it acknowledges that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is driven by Pyongyang’s security concerns and that denuclearization will not take place in a vacuum. Establishing this linkage between verifiably dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and U.S. actions to address Pyongyang’s security concerns lays an important foundation for future diplomatic engagement.


Ken Gause: It laid the foundation between the U.S. and North Korea on which improved relations could build off of.

It also established some rapport at the senior level that has kept North Korea from testing its ICBMs and nuclear programs.

 


Stephan Haggard: I supported the summit. At the time, there was effectively no communication between the U.S. and North Korea except through costly verbal and military signaling.

Given the short time frame, the summit was unlikely to achieve any major substantive breakthrough. The hope, rather, was that both the lead-up to the summit and the aftermath would involve substantive negotiations.

The summit document, however poorly crafted, also appeared the reflect the reality that negotiations could not be “nuclear only,” but would require a widening of the agenda. This fact was simply bowing to reality.


The past year has seen unprecedented U.S.-North Korea diplomacy | Photo: KCNA


What do you think was its most critical flaw?


Andray Abrahamian: Obviously, it was vague and aspirational, but that wasn’t necessarily a flaw, given the context. The vagueness only became an issue as it became clear that there hadn’t been enough concrete action in the run-up to Hanoi.

Leaving things to be solved at the leader-level was always going to be risky and the North Korean side in particular seems to want to keep things too vague for the Americans to accept.

That said, perhaps the U.S. side could have found a way to communicate its need for detailed proposals more elegantly in Hanoi. The way it ended there has clearly caused great consternation in Pyongyang.


Ankit Panda: The meeting in Singapore inverted the old diplomatic formula where months and years of working-level preparation might pave the way for a meeting of leaders to seal in a broad agreement. Instead, the language that emerged in the joint statement was effectively a restatement of many of the principles found in the June 11, 1993 U.S.-DPRK joint statement.

25 years later, we’d hardly made much headway with Pyongyang, mostly because the theatrics of the summit itself became the achievement rather than any substantive negotiation process. The critical flaw of the Singapore Summit then was that it offered a misleading glimpse of what a normalized U.S.-North Korea relationship might look like even as the fundamental differences between the two countries remained unaddressed.

The vague statement of “complete denuclearization” in the declaration, too, allowed the United States to walk away and issue months of statements misleadingly telling the international community that what Kim had agreed to in Singapore was the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”


Chris Green: I was once of the view that the lack of specificity in the summit agreement – as critics pointed out, even less specificity than in past agreements — was a serious flaw. However, I have since come around to the argument that it would not have been possible to achieve much more than was achieved at that first meeting because the trust was not there to do more. You cannot run before you can walk, as they say.

Conversely, the most serious flaws all came after the summit. Whether due to American and/or North Korean intransigence or just a paucity of sound strategic thinking, that breathing space I mentioned was not filled with creative and credible steps towards the bright future that the summit agreement stipulates.


Daniel Wertz: The absence of sustained working-level talks by empowered negotiators — both before and after the Singapore summit — has made the top-down diplomatic approach a hollow one.

Summit meetings can set the tone for negotiations and help to break deadlocks, but they can’t substitute for a more in-depth and ongoing negotiation process.

 


Duyeon Kim: The most critical flaw of the Singapore statement was giving everything North Korea wants in the exact order in which it always wanted to negotiate them for the first time in their negotiating history. Denuclearization came third with no shared definition of what it means. The other was Trump giving away a key bargaining chip too soon: unilaterally canceling joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises without Pyongyang having to pay for it.

Trump even called them “provocative” and “war games,” which were Pyongyang and Beijing’s words. Readiness declines when soldiers don’t train and exercise, which weakens the rationale for justifying U.S. troop presence from Pyongyang and Beijing’s point of view. Halting them is like dropping a shield before a drawn sword.

A smarter bargain would have been to modify the exercises out of good faith by reducing or eliminating some of the more provocative elements (that were incorporated and increased with every North Korean provocation since 2010) such as bomber flyovers in exchange for a halt in nuclear tests and all ballistic missile tests.


Go Myong-Hyun: The fact that the Singapore summit was far from perfect is evidenced by the failure of the follow-up meeting in Hanoi. The summit’s biggest flaw is the other side of what made the Singapore summit possible, namely Trump’s penchant for substituting structure for personality. The U.S. and North Korea were able to sit face to face in Singapore only because Trump was willing to risk his and his country’s credibility for a chance to elicit from Kim Jong Un an agreement to completely denuclearize.

Unfortunately, Trump’s emphasis on personal rapport over structure may have led Kim to miscalculate that he could make a handshake deal with him. Trump himself may have believed that, with North Korea being an absolute dictatorship, a genuine change to the country’s policy could only come from the very top.

As a result, both leaders ignored the lack of progress at working level meetings preceding the summit in Hanoi, believing their personal relationship could smooth over any bumps along the way. Their wishful thinkings turned out to be wrong, evidenced by the collapse of the talks in Hanoi.


Jung Pak: The Singapore summit was full of pageantry, but it did little to establish a foundation for denuclearization negotiations to take root and thrive. Instead of establishing a common definition of denuclearization and determining a roadmap with specific steps, President Trump offered gratuitous compliments for Kim Jong Un, premature declarations about the end of the North Korean nuclear threat, and criticisms of U.S.-South Korea military exercises that cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to South Korea.

Kim was obligated to do very little, but he was able to pocket the benefits of the summit, including positive international attention and the erosion of the maximum pressure campaign.

Given the fundamental weaknesses of the Singapore summit, we should not be surprised at Kim’s apparent confidence in Hanoi that he could manipulate bilateral ties toward getting sanctions relief without taking meaningful actions toward denuclearization.


Kelsey Davenport: The Singapore summit failed to set up a sustainable process with an agreed-upon structure for regular meetings that also empowered negotiating teams to discuss in detail the steps necessary to move forward on the goals agreed to in the Singapore declaration. Initiating talks with a head-of-state summit may have been necessary for both the United States and North Korea to demonstrate the political will to engage in negotiations, but a leader-led process is not sustainable, nor is it suitable for highly-technical, detailed discussions.

If the talks had established a regular process for negotiations, it may have prevented some of the misunderstandings that arose as a result of the vague language agreed to in Singapore and capitalized on the momentum of the first summit to produce concrete actions toward meeting the goals agreed to in Singapore.


Ken Gause: Ultimately, it was the Trump administration’s assumption that Kim Jong Un shared a similar vision of denuclearization. This assumption led to unrealizable expectations going forward, which caused tensions to rise between the two countries.

Because U.S. policy continued to adhere to denuclearization upfront before making concessions on sanctions, this misunderstanding of what “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” meant undermined the goodwill that had been established at the summit. It also led to the failed summit in Hanoi.


Stephan Haggard: There were two downside risks: that the President’s team simply did not have time to negotiate anything meaningful before the summit, and that the North Koreans would delay, coming into the summit thinking they could roll the president.

They did. The problem is not only that the summit document reflected virtually all North Korean priorities, it is also that the North Koreans used the document to push off meaningful negotiations.


Returning the remains of U.S. soldiers was a key clause of the Singapore agreement | Photo: Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)


How much progress would you say has been made towards achieving the goals of the Singapore declaration?


Andray Abrahamian: We’re still largely waiting on the entry point to working on the four points in the Singapore Declaration, which should have been Hanoi.

And indeed, they came close on a number of issues that would have helped the two sides push forward on a peace regime, new relations between the countries and more repatriation of U.S. remains (some of which took place in between Singapore and Hanoi).

They didn’t get close on defining denuclearization, however, which was necessary to unlock all the other aspirations that came out of Singapore.


Ankit Panda: The most progress that has been made is with the repatriation of POW/KIA remains from the Korean War, but, as of June 2019, implementation has come to a standstill.

The remaining three operational clauses of the Singapore Statement have still not made serious progress.

 


Chris Green: Nothing close to the potential. Let’s take the summit declaration bullet points in turn. Have we seen the establishment of new bilateral relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity? Have we seen the two countries join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula? These concepts are indistinct and hard to quantify, and so others may take a different view, but in neither case have I observed much progress.

One can be more positive in terms of the third and fourth bullet points. North Korea destroyed its one and only nuclear test site around the time of the summit. That makes it a great deal harder, though perhaps not impossible, for the Kim regime to return to nuclear testing. In July last year we also saw the return of the remains of 55 UN service personnel lost inside North Korea during the Korean War.

However, what is needed if progress is to deepen and ultimately become irreversible is a process of dialogue and reciprocal steps towards the mutually agreed goals articulated in the Singapore summit declaration, and that we certainly do not have.


Daniel Wertz: There has been very little concrete progress toward realizing the four pillars included in the Singapore declaration, other than North Korea’s repatriation of 55 sets of American military remains from the Korean War era.

It appeared that, prior to the Hanoi summit, Washington and Pyongyang had reached tentative agreement on measures related to the improvement of relations and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula: the exchange of liaison offices, an end-of-war declaration, and the resumption of POW/MIA remains recovery operations in North Korea.

However, in the absence of an agreement on the core issue of North Korea’s nuclear program, action on these issues failed to materialize.


Duyeon Kim: There was no progress in achieving the first three goals of the Singapore statement. It also agreed to hold follow on discussions led by Secretary Pompeo and his unnamed counterpart, but those talks immediately hit a snag with Pyongyang calling him and Trump’s team “headwinds” and seeking to deal directly with Trump instead while bypassing the working level.

The Hanoi summit proved that no substantive progress was made in narrowing the gap on the nuclear issue and agreeing on a common end state. The absence of a real agreement with Washington allows Pyongyang to continue developing its nuclear arsenal.


Go Myong-Hyun: The Singapore summit had four main points: 1) establish a new and positive relationship between the two countries 2) Establish a peace regime in the Korean peninsula 3) reaffirmation of North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization 4) Recovery of Korean War remains.

The two countries haven’t made much progress on any of these goals, including the return of war remains which seems rather straightforward to achieve. The biggest stumbling block is again the fact that the two sides cannot agree on sequencing of denuclearization and reciprocal measures.

While it is conceivable for the two sides to make progress on advancing dialogue by implementing eminently achievable albeit less central aims such as return of war remains, the top-down approach initiated by Trump and Kim this has trapped the two sides into achieving grand outcomes befitting the occasion of summits, while ignoring the low hanging fruits.


Jung Pak: Since Singapore, there has been some progress—the return of some POW/MIA remains, the maintenance of a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing, and with South Korea, family reunions and some reduction of border tension. But these are minor and tactical concessions that have had little impact on North Korea’s existing (and advanced) nuclear weapons program, its probable ongoing production of fissile materials, disruptive cyber activities, possession of chemical and biological weapons, and abhorrent human rights violations.

By all accounts, I think it is safe to assess that post-Singapore, Kim had not made a strategic decision to denuclearize. His approach had not changed nine months later. At the Hanoi summit, the two sides apparently made progress on a peace declaration and establishing liaison offices—which could have advanced some aspects of the Singapore declaration–but were deadlocked on the next steps on denuclearization.

This is not surprising since the U.S. and North Korea have not been able to agree on the end goal.


Kelsey Davenport: The two summits have provided important insights into the negotiating positions and priorities of both the United States and North Korea, but there has been no significant, tangible progress over the past year on the goals agreed to in Singapore.

The limited steps that both sides have taken—on the U.S. side modifications to joint military exercises with South Korea and on the North Korean side steps to dismantle part of a missile test facility and continued adherence to the long-range missile and nuclear test moratorium—are quickly reversible and do not significantly advance denuclearization and building peace in the region.


Ken Gause: Very little. The rapport established between Trump and Kim is the most important thing to come out of the summit, but it is in danger of eroding as tensions between the countries continues to rise.

 

 


Stephan Haggard: Less than zero. I say “less than zero” because it is increasingly clear that the president doesn’t really care that much about the issue. The President of the United States stood next to the Prime Minister of Japan in Tokyo and stated openly that short-range North Korean missile tests didn’t matter.

As long as the North Koreans don’t engage in further nuclear or long-range missile tests, Trump could well try to finesse the issue. To the extent that Bolton and Pompeo lead on the issue, they are unlikely to adopt a strategy that will work.


Both sides have expressed a willingness to hold another summit… | Photo: Rodong Sinmun


What needs to happen now for the two sides to move beyond this months-long diplomatic impasse?


Andray Abrahamian: I think, given that this has been politically much more difficult in Pyongyang than in Washington, the United States is probably going to have to make some kind of gesture first. This could be some kind of pledge for multilateral aid combined with, say, a letter from Trump asking Kim to receive Special Representative Biegun.

Then, of course, the Korean side would really have to be ready for him and ready to empower working-level negotiators to hammer out some details on denuclearization, particularly the value and definition of Yongbyon, which the Koreans don’t seem to have adequately prepared for Hanoi.


Ankit Panda: I think it’s quite clear: the North Koreans are unlikely to pick up the phone until they see some public evidence from U.S. behavior or statements that a step-by-step process on denuclearization is possible.

Until that happens, we likely won’t even see the working-level process resume.

 


Chris Green: Kim Jong Un placed the Yongbyon nuclear research center on the table for negotiation. There is some debate as to just how important that site is to the North Korean nuclear program now that the country has established its deterrence capability, but even if only in terms of ensuring that the aging nuclear research site doesn’t end up irradiating half of Pyongan province for a generation, it would be a net plus to eliminate it.

The question then becomes: what is that worth? At the second U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi, North Korea presented an excessive demand for sanctions relief, requesting that all the UN sanctions resolutions imposed since 2016 be removed. That was not realistic. But there are some things that can be done on the economic front – such as granting a sanctions waiver to permit the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which Kim Jong Un has already said he is prepared to do unconditionally – and on the diplomatic front, like signing a symbolically (albeit not legally) meaningful end-of-war declaration.


Daniel Wertz: North Korea will have to move past the blow to its leader’s ego suffered at Hanoi, begin re-engaging in working-level dialogue, and become willing to put its nuclear facilities beyond Yongbyon on the negotiating table.

The U.S. will have to adopt a more internally-consistent policymaking process that empowers its negotiators, and accept the reality that maximalist demands for immediate North Korean denuclearization are not going to work.


Duyeon Kim: The problem is Pyongyang wants to see Washington present an offer that fits its taste while ghosting the working level on further discussions.

If this lull continues, it may require another love letter from Trump to Kim. But that letter needs to clearly state the need to empower their negotiators to do their jobs and ask Kim to give clear guidelines on the nuclear issue so that his negotiator has room to negotiate.

Both teams should meet with their own desired version of a denuclearization-peace roadmap and then negotiate one agreed roadmap. Smaller deals can be made in the meantime, but it’s important that any deal contains proportionate tradeoffs.


Go Myong-Hyun: The design flaw in the current negotiation framework has frustrated the North Korean side more than the Americans. It is clear from Kim’s public exasperation that North Korea is frustrated at the lack of progress.

It seems that the American side is betting that Kim will put a better offer on the table sooner rather than later. But what is more likely is that North Korea walks away from dialogue with the United States, marking the occasion with a ballistic missile launch.

If Trump is indeed focused on dialogue as the principal means of solving the crisis then he should focus on more achievable goals at this point. For instance, instead of demanding North Korea to give up all nuclear sites in one go, disclosed or otherwise, the U.S. side could divide up the denuclearization process into a number of stages and negotiate each one separately and in parallel. This way the two sides can figure out what can feasibly be achieved and what can not, thereby creating a sustainable framework for denuclearization.


Kelsey Davenport: After returning from Hanoi empty-handed, Kim appears to be looking for a face-saving concession from the Trump administration to restart negotiations. But even if Trump is willing to make such a gesture, the U.S. and North Korean approaches to the negotiations and the format of the process will need to shift to prevent another impasse. For Kim, this requires giving his team the mandate to negotiate in detail steps toward denuclearization and recognizing that the majority of UN sanctions will not be lifted in exchange for partial dismantlement of the country’s nuclear weapons program.

On the U.S. side, Trump must refrain from undercutting his negotiating team and sending North Korea mixed messages about the U.S. position. The Trump administration also needs to be more flexible and abandon some of its unrealistic demands. Washington should consider economic sanctions relief earlier in the negotiating process and move away from insisting that North Korea agree to a “big deal” on the onset that defines the end state of denuclearization before incremental steps can be pursued.


Ken Gause: The Trump administration needs to move away from ‘Maximum Pressure’ and adopt a more phased, reciprocal approach to engagement.

That will introduce much-needed flexibility and clear a pathway for a third summit.

 


Stephan Haggard: The situation at the moment is very fluid and hard to read. First, we don’t really know how bad the humanitarian situation in North Korea is, or whether the North Korean regime is sensitive to such constraints. Sanctions seem to have gotten North Korea to the table—at least in part—but it is not clear that material distress will force concessions on the regime – they could well go the other direction, toward a harder line.

Is the U.S. willing to relent, for example, by giving more room to President Moon to take initiatives? Second, North Korea clearly overplayed its hand in Hanoi, but is the leadership willing to acknowledge this fact to get back to talks?

Finally, the sanctions regime is quietly unraveling, as critics of the summit warned. I suspect this would have happened anyway, but ongoing conflicts with Beijing on trade — and Moscow on nearly everything — don’t make the task of coordination any easier.


…but Pyongyang and Washington would need to overcome major hurdles before that could go ahead | Photo: Rodong Sinmun


How likely do you think a third summit is, at this stage, and what might it achieve?


Andray Abrahamian: I’d say it’s still likely, but the window of opportunity is closing. It could achieve a significant freeze of fissile material in the short term and unlock progress on all the other issues facing the DPRK and its relations with the world that could be tackled with a long-term view.

There’s a lot of variables both before a third summit and after — too many to make a meaningful prediction.


Ankit Panda: This administration does not seem likely to fundamentally reassess its policy toward North Korea. A third summit, then, is unlikely.

Instead, we risk returning to the tensions of 2017 given Kim’s December 31, 2019, deadline for the United States to arrive a “bold decision” regarding its policy.

 


Chris Green: I am inclined to ignore the current spate of short-range missile launches and verbal jousting from Pyongyang, which are in any case calibrated to attract attention, like clearing your throat in a crowded room.

Sweep all that aside and both sides seem to have an interest in continuing the discussion from Singapore and Hanoi. To that extent, a third summit is plausible. But it will take significant effort from both sides to bring it to fruition.


Daniel Wertz: A third summit is far from assured, since both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un would be wary of a repeat of the Hanoi summit’s fizzle. Nonetheless, I think it’s likely that the two sides will engage in at least one final burst of diplomatic outreach before next year’s U.S. presidential election.

If Washington and Pyongyang prove willing to walk back – at least in part – from the negotiating stances they pursued in Hanoi, then there might be space for a modest deal to emerge, and for the two sides to sketch out a roadmap on denuclearization and the normalization of relations.


Duyeon Kim: A third summit is as likely as Trump wants it to be. But holding another summit without putting in enough prep work will only result in a repeat of Hanoi. Run-up negotiations to Hanoi showed that only Kim Jong Un was able to comment on the nuclear issue. If all goes well, perhaps they can at least verifiably halt fissile material production in return for some modest U.S. concessions like ad hoc, time-bound sanctions exemptions or waivers and liaison offices.

But another summit won’t achieve anything if Kim returns with the same demand of Yongbyon for UN sanctions relief. Both sides need to find compromises. Because this is a summit process, Trump will still need to hear from Kim that he will eventually put all of his nuclear weapons programs on the table — even if that deadline is ambiguous or distant and comes with many conditions.


Go Myong-Hyun: It is clear that while Trump is still interested in a third summit, the North Koreans have lost much of their appetite for yet another meeting that could possibly go south. But the possibility of a third summit is not exhausted yet. North Koreans are more or less putting forward two conditions for the third summit to be realized. First is for the United States to agree to take a step by step approach instead of a grand bargain. The second is for the U.S. side to move ahead first with some sanctions relief to relieve the economic pressure on North Korea.

Trump could get his third meeting with Kim by agreeing to these conditions. But accepting North Korean demands unconditionally won’t net him more than another audience with Kim.

In order to make the third summit more meaningful, the U.S. side should first come up with a multiple stage roadmap for denuclearization with clearly outlined reciprocal measures. It is not an approach that the North Koreans prefer, but certainly a more acceptable alternative to unilateral denuclearization.


Jung Pak: A third summit is likely to occur before the end of 2020. Since Hanoi, Kim appears to be determined to demonstrate his toughness through calibrated statements and missile tests, but remains interested in maintaining the personal diplomacy with President Trump. The President, for his part, has also signaled his willingness to meet Kim again, while President Moon is seeking to get U.S.-North Korea talks back on track. Beijing and Moscow would probably support another meeting as well. Expectations for what a potential third summit might achieve depends on how we got there.

The best — but least likely — scenario is one in which there is demonstrable progress in working-level negotiations and Kim takes actions that show his commitment to denuclearization, such as agreeing to halt fissile material production and allowing inspectors to verify the cessation of those activities.

The more likely scenario is one in which Kim ratchets up tension and/or privately messages Trump that he plans to revert to testing, citing the “gangster-like” demands of other senior administration officials in an effort to prod the president into yet another summit.

In this case, one can envision President Moon appealing to Trump’s vanity by arguing that only he can break the deadlock by meeting with Kim again, even in the absence of progress on denuclearization.


Kelsey Davenport: Given Trump’s preference for pageantry and self-styling as a master dealmaker, the possibility of a third summit cannot be ruled out, but the likelihood may decrease as the United States edges closer to the 2020 election. Kim’s decision to set the end of 2019 as a deadline for the Trump administration to revise its approach to talks may have been driven in part by the U.S. electoral calendar and his perception that the window for engagement will close ahead of the election.

Whether or not a third summit produces tangible results will likely depend on the process leading up to the meeting. If the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams have a long lead time and the authority to negotiate in detail steps to advance the Singapore declaration’s goals, a third summit could be a win-win for Trump and Kim.

But if the meeting is another photo-op that does not produce concrete results, it is likely to set the negotiating process back as it would be even more difficult for Kim to defend continued engagement if he returns from another summit empty-handed.


Ken Gause: Not very likely. Both countries are working off different timelines. Kim has set a deadline for the end of the year for the Trump administration to shift its strategy. He cannot make unilateral concessions upfront because that would undermine his legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Trump is focused on domestic issues in the lead up to the 2020 election. Unless Trump sees the need for a foreign policy victory to shore up his reelection bid, it’s hard to see the U.S. taking the steps necessary to seriously reengage with Pyongyang anytime soon.

If, on the other hand, Trump decides NK could provide that foreign policy victory and shifts strategy, a third summit could occur. Provided the concessions both sides would make are worked out in advance and adhered to, a third summit could fundamentally reset the relationship.


Stephan Haggard: Hanoi probably made both sides wary of a third summit. For the Trump team, walking away was better than a bad deal, but the failure to nail anything down in advance was nonetheless an embarrassment. Even if rumors of purges were exaggerated, Hanoi was an embarrassment for Pyongyang as well. I suspect that if anything happens, it will be lower level contacts and probes to see if there is any give on either side.

The chances that the North Koreans will take a bold step are small, but the U.S. needs to keep working the issue diplomatically even if we are increasingly in a containment world.


Edited by James Fretwell

Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES

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