Prospects for the second US-North Korea summit

US president Donald Trump has confirmed that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold a second summit in Vietnam on 27-28 February.

Outcome of the Singapore summit

Trump and Kim’s first meeting in June 2018 produced a summit declaration long on rhetoric but short on detail, leaving analysts with little to do except accentuate the positive or the negative, depending on their view of the longer-term prospects for a deal.

Several confidence-building actions did follow the Singapore summit. North Korea stopped testing nuclear weapons and put some facilities and equipment out of use; the US and South Korea suspended their military exercises. But, as the Vietnam summit approaches, everybody is wondering (presuming that it goes ahead) whether there will there be more substance this time.  

There has been movement on the inter-Korean track

There have been three summits between Kim Jong-un and President Moon since Singapore and numerous military and economic confidence-building measures have been implemented by the two Koreas.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has worked hard to mediate between the North and the US. With the prospect of war receding, public opinion at home remains behind him for the moment.

The US has publicly appeared relaxed about the speed with which things have been moving between the two Koreas, although there has at times been tension behind the scenes. In November 2018 a Joint Working Group was set up by the US and South Korea to improve their policy coordination on North Korea.

But standstill on the US-DPRK track

By contrast with the inter-Korean track, there have been meetings but no new actions since Singapore.

The two sides continue to have different ideas about what denuclearisation should mean. The US is talking about total denuclearisation by North Korea by the end of 2020 (when President Trump will likely be seeking re-election).

North Korea calls instead for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which potentially brings into play the US ‘security umbrella’ which has protected South Korea. There has been no breakthrough yet on a peace treaty to end the Korean War. UN sanctions remain fully in place and are still hurting North Korea, even if their effectiveness may have reduced (see below).

There have been occasional statements from the North Korean leadership complaining that so far it has been “all give and no take,” but President Trump has been largely exempted from such criticism.

By the end of 2018 there was a growing sense that there needed to be further movement on the US-DPRK track soon if the whole process was not to unravel.

Progress on both tracks is needed for a real breakthrough

In the end, the two tracks cannot be separated. There is widespread acknowledgement that, if things break down on the US-North Korea track, the inter-Korean track will eventually be affected.

The lack of progress so far on the first track is already limiting the degree to which the South can push ahead with economic investment and support to the North. This is one of the factors that has led President Moon to strongly back the idea of a second summit between Trump and Kim.

The crucial gap yet to be bridged on the first track is between the US position that North Korea must totally denuclearise and then everything else can follow, and North Korea’s stance that the only process that will work is a gradual one involving reciprocal actions.

For example, some people say that North Korea would be open to dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for some sanctions relief and/or moves towards signing a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War.

Is the DPRK willing to totally denuclearise? Some experts believe Kim has made a definitive switch towards prioritising North Korea’s ailing economy, meaning everything is up for negotiation. But many find it hard to believe that it will completely give up its nuclear weapons, given that – remembering Libya – this could be regime suicide.

Can the US sustain its insistence that it must do so? Or could it accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, albeit one that has scaled down its capabilities dramatically (above all, in terms of its ability to strike the US mainland) and which is subject to credible verification?

Much depends on how far the US and the North are equally committed to finding a way forward in which both sides get ‘something for something’. In recent weeks there have been signs that they may be moving in that direction.

What about China?

What happens next will be heavily impacted by wider relations between the US and China. At first sight the omens are not good. The two have been in a trade war and are testing each other out in the South China Sea. China sees North Korea as its backyard, albeit a very troublesome one. If it finds itself marginalised in future diplomacy on the issue, it could become a spoiler.

So far, this has not happened: the US and China are maintaining lines of communication and seeking to coordinate what they are doing. Kim has been busy mending relations with Chinese president Xi Jinping. But China, never very enthusiastic about UN sanctions, appears to have relaxed enforcement since the Singapore summit. Given that 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China, this has undermined the effectiveness of the sanctions.

With two weeks to go until the Vietnam summit, uncertainty about the outcome reigns supreme and all scenarios remain possible.

Further reading

Making sense of the impending US-North Korea summit, House of Commons Library (May 2018).

 Jon Lunn is a Senior Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.

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