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All Eyes on Tangible Results from U.S.-North Korea Summit
All Eyes on Tangible Results from U.S.-North Korea Summit
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore 12 June 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Q&A / United States

All Eyes on Tangible Results from U.S.-North Korea Summit

The North Korean and U.S. leaders enter their second summit under pressure to achieve concrete progress toward their respective goals, sanctions relief and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Crisis Group Senior Adviser Christopher Green suggests risk reduction measures each side can take.

What has happened since the first U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore?

At the conclusion of the Singapore summit last June, the U.S. and North Korea issued a statement calling for a new bilateral relationship, a stable peninsular peace regime, efforts toward denuclearisation of the peninsula, and the recovery of U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. The statement lacked detail as to how and when these goals might be achieved. These gaps had the advantage of not setting the bar too high, but the pervasive vagueness was criticized.

The lack of clear direction from Singapore contributed to patchy dialogue through the rest of the year and – though both sides took what might be viewed as confidence-building steps – no major progress was made. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made repeated trips to Pyongyang and a senior North Korean interlocutor, Gen. Kim Yong-chol, visited Washington and New York. However, in August and again in November, each side cancelled a round of talks, on both occasions due ostensibly to lack of progress: for the U.S., a lack of movement on denuclearisation, and for North Korea, on commitments Washington made in the Singapore joint statement.

Nevertheless, there have been several positive developments. First, a welcome overall stability has reigned over the Korean peninsula since the Singapore summit. North Korea has not conducted any significant nuclear or missile testing, and the U.S. and South Korea have not conducted any large-scale military exercises. North Korea demolished its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in May, shortly before the first summit, and in July returned the remains of 55 U.S. servicemen.

Kim recommitted North Korea to forging new bilateral ties with the old enemy.

Second, U.S. determination in early and mid-2018 to pursue the complete denuclearisation of North Korea prior to any significant sanctions relief – a posture that subsequently appears to have been relaxed – did not block improvement in inter-Korean relations over the course of the year. The two Koreas implemented several modest confidence-building measures. Most notably, Seoul and Pyongyang established a liaison office in Kaesong in September. In November, the UN Security Council issued a sanctions waiver permitting inter-Korean collaboration on a survey of North Korean railways, and each side destroyed ten guard posts along their land border (followed by joint verification to ensure complete demolition). During the second half of the year, the Security Council issued further sanctions waivers to several humanitarian providers who had been waiting, in some cases for years, to restart aid projects in North Korea.

Why are the two sides meeting again now?

Planning for the meeting began against a background of growing frustration on both sides about lack of movement. Pessimism among policymakers in Washington about North Korean intentions mirrored perceptions of American inflexibility in Pyongyang; both grew acute in late 2018. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in early December that a second summit was necessary because North Korea has “not lived up to the commitments” it made in Singapore. In mid-December, several commentaries in North Korean state media harshly criticised the U.S. for much the same thing: conducting “amicable negotiations” in Singapore while cleaving to a hard line on sanctions and pressure back home. Pyongyang, the commentaries explained, was waiting for Washington to “come to its senses” and realise that sanctions and pressure were not compatible with the commitment to improve relations made in June.

With rising dissatisfaction over lack of progress, Kim Jong-un sought to press the reset button with positive comments during his annual 1 January address on North Korean television. In a speech full of positivity about current relations with South Korea and cautiously optimistic about future relations with the U.S., Kim recommitted North Korea to forging new bilateral ties with the old enemy, as well as to “build[ing] a lasting and durable peace regime and advance toward complete denuclearisation.” This helped pave the way for concrete summit planning.

The precedent of the leaders meeting having been established, North Korea has resisted entering into sustained working-level dialogue since Singapore. The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Steve Biegun, did not meet North Korean interlocutors throughout 2018, not for want of trying. His first engagement was in mid-January 2019. In this sense, the first summit made a second one almost inevitable: Pyongyang would not accept anything less in no small part because it is convinced that the best chance for U.S. concessions comes from President Trump himself. Pyongyang’s insistence on summit diplomacy dovetailed with President Trump’s own preferences. He has appeared eager for a reprise of summit-level talks since the Singapore meeting, seemingly persuaded that he alone is capable of forging real progress.

What can we realistically expect to come of it?

The U.S. administration is acutely aware of the criticism it attracted for the vagueness of the 2018 summit joint statement and has been stressing the need for concrete results this time around. Discussions are ongoing over what these might be; Biegun held one round of meetings in Pyongyang in January and went to Hanoi on 19 February for further talks in advance of the summit. The success of the summit may well depend not only on what President Trump does but also on the outcome of these preparations.

Importantly, Washington has incrementally relaxed its demand for unilateral North Korean denuclearisation prior to U.S. concessions, tentatively embracing a more realistic plan based on reciprocal steps and heightening the potential for a constructive summit. Accordingly, the plausible best-case scenario would be for North Korea to agree to credible steps toward denuclearisation in exchange for modest sanctions relief from the U.S. Kim put North Korea’s nuclear research facility at Yongbyon conditionally on the table during his third summit with South Korean President Moon in September, saying that closure of the facility would be possible “as [long as] the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 U.S.-DPRK Joint Statement.”

A second vaguely worded joint statement like the one signed in Singapore [...] would have limited practical value beyond maintaining bilateral dialogue.

Corresponding sanctions relief could be readily structured in such a way as to deliver the gains of peace and stability not only to the North but also South Korea, buttressing domestic South Korean support for inter-Korean dialogue. The easiest way forward would be for the UN Security Council to waive sanctions to facilitate reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a manufacturing zone run jointly by the two countries that was shuttered in February 2016, along with narrowly defined permission for South Korean investment in North Korean transport infrastructure.

The wheels of progress could be further oiled by a declaration ending the Korean War. Both North Korea and the U.S. have expressed a wish to officially end the war, which was halted with an armistice in 1953, a sentiment also shared by South Korea and China. Although Pyongyang probably would not respond with a significant concession of its own – the North asserts that this is something the U.S. should have done decades ago and therefore not a meaningful gesture – such a declaration nonetheless would be an important trust-building measure. Signing a declaration in Vietnam, another formerly divided Asian state where the U.S. once fought a war, would carry considerable symbolic value.

The content of the final statement issued from Hanoi will be the measure of the meeting’s success. A second vaguely worded joint statement like the one signed in Singapore, which articulated general principles but lacked concrete steps for each side to take, would have limited practical value beyond maintaining bilateral dialogue.

Why Vietnam?

Hanoi is readily accessible from North Korea and Vietnam has good relations with both the U.S. and North Korea. For the U.S., Vietnam symbolises the dramatic changes that are possible in relations with a former adversary. For North Korea, the ties are longer-standing. Hanoi established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 1950. In the years that followed, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh paid an official visit to Pyongyang and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung went twice to Hanoi. North Korea provided North Vietnam with economic and military assistance during the Vietnam War, losing fourteen fighter pilots in the process, and thousands of Vietnamese were educated in North Korea in the 1960s. Though bilateral relations began to decline in the late 1960s, reaching a nadir with the Vietnamese economic reform process of the 1980s and 90s, tensions never led to a schism.

Vietnam also looks like an example of successful economic reform, one that North Korea would, in principle, be capable of replicating given the necessary political will and external environment. From the North’s perspective, that would mean the removal of the American threat, relatively peaceful coexistence with and continuing active economic and diplomatic support from South Korea, and access to international sources of finance. During a preparatory visit to Hanoi in December, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said that North Korea would like to learn more from Vietnam’s development experience – and indeed, Kim is reportedly slated to visit the manufacturing region of Bac Ninh and industrial port town of Hai Phong during his visit. (Notably, Minister Ri also went to Guangdong, raising the possibility of Kim stopping off in one of the economic powerhouses of southern China in conjunction with the summit.)

There is also potential economic benefit for Vietnam. The summit last June was a public relations success for Singapore. Vietnam, which cut its teeth hosting international events with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2017, would find such focused international exposure even more beneficial.

What does Crisis Group recommend?

In December 2018, Crisis Group called for the verifiable closure of Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions relief in the form of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Yongbyon is not North Korea’s only important nuclear site – the country’s nuclear and missile programs are widely dispersed. But closing it would still be a necessary step on the path to denuclearisation. Closure would serve as a risk reduction measure; a means of reintroducing outside monitors to North Korea; and a noteworthy indicator of openness to disarmament in general. The reciprocal step – allowing the reopening of the inter-Korean manufacturing zone at Kaesong – would accommodate U.S. caution over the risks of loosening sanctions excessively prior to denuclearisation while reinforcing alliance relations between the U.S. and South Korea by ensuring that both Washington and Seoul benefit from the diplomatic process. Among the many possible options for early sanctions relief, reopening Kaesong – though of modest economic value – would be a powerful symbol of potential future economic relations between the two Koreas.

What are we likely to see after the summit?

Kim Jong-un is likely to report the results of the summit to Chinese leader Xi Jinping en route back to Pyongyang. South Korea has invited Kim to visit Seoul on 1 March, a key date in Korean independence movement history (when Koreans, inspired by President Wilson’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference, rose up against the Japanese colonial regime), but this visit seems rather unlikely. Another inter-Korean summit later in the year is a distinct possibility, however. Kim also has a standing invitation to visit Moscow, which he is likely to take up at some point.