After their historic but inconclusive meeting last year, US President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un met for the second time on Wednesday for a two-day summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.
While Trump has been busy managing expectations, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems optimistic about a “substantial step” towards forcing the North Korean dictator to shed his nuclear weapons capacity.
But for all the optimistic talk in front of cameras, sceptics and analysts are equally apprehensive that Trump, eager to rush an agreement, might make valuable concessions to Kim without concrete gains in return.
Asked if the Hanoi summit would yield a political declaration to end the Korean War, Trump had said, “We’ll see.”
On the question of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, Trump said last month that he would be happy with a halt on missile testing; he added he doesn’t want to rush anything despite North Korea’s ongoing development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. However, to reporters who managed to ask questions as the two leaders walked into the meeting room, Trump said he will continue to insist on denuclearisation.
The status of the promised denuclearisation
Immediately after returning from the summit last June, Trump had tweeted, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
Kim had committed Pyongyang to “work towards” the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in the Singapore agreement whose vague rhetoric has irked analysts all over the world.
According to multiple sources, however, the country has merely pushed its aggressive nuclear testing programme underground, so as to extract crucial concessions from the US without surrendering its nukes, away from international scrutiny.
It has been eight months since their first encounter with no concrete or verfiable proof of Kim’s attempts to deescalate nuclearisation.
Despite it, Trump has repeatedly claimed that his diplomatic endeavours have led to tremendous strides towards convincing Kim, who is 30 years junior to him, to relinquish all nuclear weapons. He seems content with being credited for a reduction in tensions with North Korea and for making Korea’s provocative testing vanish.
Which brings us to the second meeting
The second summit was arranged through effusive letters transmitted between Washington and Pyongyang, although the uncertainties of what it will bring, have Trump’s own advisors on tenterhooks.
Several members of the Trump administration including his foreign policy advisors are not on board with his “no rush policy”, believing “we actually need to move very quickly in this process.”
There are persistent doubts about the direction that the talks could take as well, given Trump’s over-eagerness to strike a deal.
Soon after last year’s summit, for instance, the US sprung a surprise when it announced to end their joint military drills with longtime ally South Korea, which are believed to have infuriated North Korea for years.
What the summit should focus on
Although denuclearisation remains the primary goal of the ongoing meeting, the backdrop to the talks remains the US intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea is unlikely to ever agree to abandon its nuclear programme since its leaders view nukes as critical to regime survival.
That assessment has left the president infuriated and red-faced; he said it aimed to undercut his “peace” efforts at the second summit. If that is indeed the real aim of this conference, both sides should come up with a common definition for ‘denuclearisation’ first.
Furthermore, North Korea must allow international inspection of the missile and nuclear test sites it has already started dismantling. Allowing international inspectors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in particular, back into Yongbyon, would be a much more significant step.
A more substantial step would be a declaration calling an end to hostilities which dates back to 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean war which was suspended three years later with an armistice but without a peace treaty. A declaration that the war was finally over would have enormous symbolic importance for both Koreas.
How the sequel summit might pan out
The Associated Press reported earlier that Trump could agree to the peace declaration for the Korean War, which Pyongyang can later use to push the US to demilitarise South Korea. Any relief in sanctions may also leave North Korea to pursue lucrative economic projects with the South, it claimed.
A deal like this further leaves Kim with a significant portion of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles while robbing the US of its negotiating leverage going forward.
What has happened at Hanoi summit so far?
Trump said he looked forward to a “very successful” summit, as the two clasped hands and posed smiling at the Metropole Hotel. He added, “It’s an honour to be with Chairman Kim, it’s an honour to be together in Vietnam.”
However, he has already faced criticism for the last minute decision to restrict press coverage and exclude reporters from his dinner with Kim.
Later, a few reporters were allowed to cover the dinner. White House Press Secretary explained the decision saying, “Due to the sensitive nature of the meetings, we have limited the pool for the dinner to a smaller group, but ensure that representation of photographers, TV, radio and print Poolers are all in the room. We are continuing to negotiate aspects of this historic summit and will always work to make sure the US media has as much access as possible.”
Trump called his North Korean counterpart “a great leader” and offering to help give his country a “tremendous future”; the latter responded: “We have been able to overcome all the obstacles and here we are today.”
Kim speaks up
Kim said the pair shared a “very interesting conversation” for 30 minutes on Wednesday. He said he is hoping the Hanoi summit delivers “an outcome welcome by everyone.”
Kim called his second sit-down with the US President a “courageous political decision” on Trump’s part. He said there had been “a lot of thinking, effort and patience” since last
According to CNN, the summit is a chance for the world to see Kim in a “different setting than the propaganda we normally see”. But for the US, with its negotiating points in disarray, the Hanoi summit can prove to be a crucial turning point in terms of diminishing dominance over the region in due course.
Extended bilateral meetings between the two leaders on Thursday will determine the future of the “special” US-North Korean relationship. The White House has also scheduled a signing ceremony for a “joint agreement” later today; it will be followed by a press conference with Trump.
Terms and conditions of this agreement will be hashed out at the summit.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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