Second Trump-Kim summit may see mutual affection but little breakthrough

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with US President Donald Trump at the Singapore Summit | Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump’s second summit with Kim Jong Un gives the two leaders the chance to once again share the spotlight and demonstrate their mutual affection -- but not even the White House expects a breakthrough leading to Pyongyang’s surrender of its nuclear arsenal.

The two sides haven’t even agreed on the meaning of denuclearization -- the ultimate purpose of the negotiations -- and that is unlikely to be resolved when the leaders meet in Hanoi this week. Trump is due to arrive in Vietnam on Tuesday, and will dine with Kim Wednesday evening after meetings with Vietnamese leaders, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One.

The low ambitions signaled by Trump’s advisers risk turning a dramatic moment into a public letdown for the U.S president, who by week’s end may have traveled twice to the other side of the world without gaining any substantive concession from Kim.

The likely outcomes instead are more symbolic. One significant possibility is that Trump and Kim conclude their meetings on Thursday with a declaration that their countries are no longer at war, a nonbinding political statement that won’t officially replace the 1953 Korean War armistice.

Trump has sought to tamp down public expectations, telling state governors on Sunday that he has no intention of lifting harsh US sanctions on North Korea and isn’t pushing for a hasty deal with Kim. “We both expect a continuation of the progress made at first Summit in Singapore,” he said in a tweet Sunday. “Denuclearization?”

Sanders complained on Fox News last week that American media had manufactured “high expectations” for the summit.

After agreeing to cease military exercises with South Korea after their first summit without anything substantive from Kim in exchange, Trump’s critics fear the president may again be talked into a U.S. concession.

“This is where the president’s unpredictability, his impulsiveness, his inclination not to prepare for meetings could get us into trouble,” said Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whom the Trump administration considered nominating for ambassador to South Korea.

Vietnamese authorities began positioning troops and military vehicles in the capital’s streets early Tuesday in preparation for the two leaders’ arrivals. Kim, who left Pyongyang on an armored train, arrived in Hanoi by motorcade Tuesday morning. Trump’s plane is expected in the evening. Sanders didn’t say where the two men would have dinner Wednesday, and the White House also hasn’t said where they will hold their formal summit on Thursday.

Trump will be joined at dinner by his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Kim will also be joined by two aides, Sanders said. She didn’t identify them.

Trump has groused that his negotiations with North Korea haven’t garnered more praise and credit, bragging recently to reporters that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Abe would not confirm that assertion. And the president is acutely aware of his reputation as a foreign policy novice.

Yet the U.S. moves to lower expectations have underscored the major challenges the Trump administration faces as it attempts to persuade Kim that giving up nuclear weapons promises greater reward than keeping them.

Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been deadlocked since the two leaders’ first summit in Singapore last June. Rather than show progress toward denuclearization, North Korea has continued to build warheads and missiles, according to satellite-imagery analysis and leaked American intelligence.

As a result, speculation before the second summit has focused on steps the two countries could take to show warming relations while avoiding the sorer points in their nuclear negotiations. In Hanoi, the government has festooned the city with U.S., Vietnamese and North Korean flags and branded the summit as a “partnership for sustainable peace.”

Peace Declaration

Some critics worry that a peace declaration -- which would come more than 65 years after the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War – could erode the American justification for stationing about 28,500 troops in neighboring South Korea. That might not be of particular concern to Trump, who has openly questioned the cost of the large U.S. troop presence and recently forced the negotiation of a new cost-sharing agreement with the South Korean government.

But the president’s previous public suggestions he might entertain a withdrawal were met with concern not just in Seoul and Tokyo, but also among leaders in both parties on Capitol Hill.

Kim could agree to allow a U.S. diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang, sought by American officials dating to Bill Clinton’s administration. But the North Korean regime has resisted, figuring the U.S. would use the outpost to expand its intelligence-gathering in the country. This summit may test Kim’s willingness to break from the past.

Patrick Cronin, chairman of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said either a peace declaration or a diplomatic exchange would be useful confidence-building moves. Neither should be met with much concern -- especially if Kim also gives ground on issues such as inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities or lockdowns or other controls of fissile material, he said.

Biegun’s Talks

Trump has repeatedly indicated he’s eager to help jump-start a post-nuclear North Korean economy. His negotiators might seek human-rights assurances that could eventually pave the way for Western companies subject to U.S. and international laws to enter the country.

The two leaders could also announce the formation of joint survey teams to look for additional remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War, after an initial repatriation following the Singapore summit.

Senior administration officials said that progress toward any of those goals would constitute success and demonstrate the president’s efforts have been effective. A team of more than a dozen U.S. officials led by Stephen Biegun, Trump’s North Korea envoy, has met twice in recent weeks – first in Pyongyang, and more recently in Hanoi – with North Korean counterparts in a bid to craft some sort of agreement for the leaders to announce.

Kim could demonstrate his sincerity by revealing undeclared facilities, disclosing or allowing inspection of his program’s uranium pathways, permitting international inspectors on the ground, or agreeing to allow electronic monitoring or the removal of samples by inspectors. U.S. negotiators are likely to raise their concerns over the proliferation of fissile material and mobile missile launchers.

But earning any such concrete concession would require hard-line negotiation, and North Korea has so far shown little stomach for meaningful restrictions on its nuclear program.

One senior administration official who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations speculated that a breakdown in talks between the U.S. and North Korea late last year could have been a signal of internal pressures within the North Korean government. Kim likely faces domestic resistance to any steps toward denuclearization, Cronin said.
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