snapshots

North Korea, U.S.: Trump and Kim Hope to Get Detente Back on Track

5 MINS READJan 18, 2019 | 22:51 GMT
The Big Picture

In its 2019 Annual Forecast, Stratfor outlined how North Korea would try and squeeze the most out of the United States in an effort to gain sanctions relief and more international legitimacy. Now, a second summit between leaders Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un offers an opportunity for progress in the diplomatic stalemate between the two.

What Happened

A second Trump-Kim summit is on the way. Following a 90-minute meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's lead nuclear negotiator, Kim Yong Chol, in Washington, the White House confirmed that a much-anticipated, second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would take place "near the end of February." At the same time, U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui are meeting in Sweden for talks that will continue through the weekend. Pyongyang and Washington have yet to provide any details as to the location of the big summit, but Hanoi or Danang in Vietnam could host the talks, as could Singapore – the site of their first summit – or Stockholm.

Why It Matters

In the main, last year's diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and North Korea succeeded in reducing tensions by halting Pyongyang's missile tests, encouraging North Korea to dismantle some weapons sites and scaling back U.S.-South Korean war games. The first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018 raised expectations of a landmark deal, yet North Korea has taken few concrete steps toward denuclearization, while the United States has also done little to soften the blow of the maximum sanctions currently in place. Through the ups and downs of lower-level talks, both sides have remained firm that the other must offer more concessions before the process advances. Accordingly, the second summit offers a second opportunity for the two leaders to deal directly and frankly to resolve the impasse.

For the United States, the coming summit must provide visible, plausible progress toward denuclearization or, at the very least, steps to eliminate the North Korean missile threat to the U.S. mainland. The White House has consistently emphasized that the current state of affairs is better than it was 12 months ago — arguing that the negotiations averted war — but the U.S. administration is well aware that time is running out to sign a deal, given that it is gearing up for another election cycle. Another summit that produces a statement with little tangible result could make a stalemate the permanent status quo.

The clock is also ticking for North Korea, since Pyongyang risks losing U.S. attention as Washington redirects its attention to internal politics. At the summit, North Korea will need to secure the "corresponding measures" it has long demanded from the United States; in concrete terms, this entails sanctions relief for the perennially weak North Korean economy, which sank into full-blown recession in 2017-2018. Kim Jong Un used the majority of his 2019 New Year's address to tout his efforts on the economy, but he also fired a warning shot at his American counterpart, threatening to restart North Korea's nuclear and weapons programs if the United States does not ease sanctions. As a relatively easy concession, Washington could create gaps in the sanctions regime to facilitate inter-Korean development projects, as well as Chinese investment in internal North Korean projects, such as the Wonsan-Hamhung highway. The United States will be careful, however, to ensure that such lifelines come with clear conditions for North Korea.

In his New Year's address, the North Korean leader also extended an olive branch to Washington by noting that his country had halted production of nuclear weapons. A summit agreement might include some confirmation of this freeze, as well as a U.S. demand that North Korea dismantle its intercontinental ballistic missiles. Ultimately, however, Pyongyang is likely to still be in possession of many elements of its hard-won nuclear program by the end of the year. 

As for the summit location, Vietnam would certainly grab the international spotlight if it managed to land the talks, which would also provide a platform for Hanoi to tout its economy as a model for North Korea (and others) to follow. And given that Korean unification will be a prominent topic at the summit, Vietnam would be well-placed to highlight and legitimize its own postwar reunification. 

Background

Last year, North Korea began making diplomatic overtures to both South Korea and the United States after it halted weapons testing. Over the course of 2018, Pyongyang and Seoul sat down for three inter-Korean summits, with a fourth set for the South sometime this year. And to start the new year, Kim Jong Un paid his fourth visit to China — which is often a precursor to discussions with the United States. Ultimately, with both the United States and North Korea demanding that the other compromise in order to kick-start the process, the coming summit cannot come soon enough for either. 

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