The first summit outlined the general framework of the new relations but the second should be devoted to solving more specific tasks. During the negotiations the sides will try to agree on specific mutual concessions. On the one hand, each side will seek to present the outcomes of the summit as its own victory, and this is much more important for Trump, since he relies on public opinion to a much greater extent than Kim. On the other hand, neither side is ready to take any actions that may affect its prestige and/or defense capability.
Both Trump and Kim are taking risks but in different ways. Kim may find himself in a situation when North Korea will make irreversible concessions, reducing its military potential. Later on the political situation in the US may change and Trump’s successor might announce that all the agreements he signed do not meet US national interests, after which the US will toughen its pressure on North Korea which will no longer be as strong as it once was. Nobody can give Kim reliable security guarantees against this happening and he must keep this option in mind even if there is an understanding when it comes to his personal communications with Trump: both leaders look like pragmatics rather than fanatics.
Trump’s risk is that against the backdrop of the US domestic political situation he cannot afford anything that may seem like “a concession to the tyrannical regime” without even being one. His opponents from the Democrats and the Republicans will use his every faux pas. Moreover, many in the security establishment, as well as experts and government officials oppose Trump’s commitment to dialogue. Understanding Kim’s afore-mentioned apprehensions they believe he will not give up his nuclear program. Therefore, talks do not really make any sense whereas this interval is not beneficial for Washington but it is for Pyongyang that is building up not only its economic potential but probably its military potential in the process. This goes well with the demonization of North Korea that cannot simply be “switched off.” However, in this paradigm Kim is by definition devious, treacherous and impossible to negotiate with.
It often seems that understanding that a military solution to the crisis is unacceptable and reluctant to make real concessions, Kim and Trump as two pragmatics have found a compromise in which the pace at which the process advances is not that important as its direction. Cannons remain silent while they talk. But even this process needs to move forward and judging by the decision to hold the summit, certain agreements have been already reached. To believe South Korean sources, a preliminary version of the joint statement by the two leaders has already been drafted.
Proceeding from the above, let’s see what each side can “give up without any serious consequences.”
The position of North Korea is simpler because Kim already described it in his New Year speech and it was partially confirmed during working meetings.
First of all, Kim is ready to dismantle major nuclear and missile facilities. Some of them (for instance, the Tongch'ang-dong Space Launch Center) are not so important now that the nuclear missile shield has already been completed while the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center is too old and could well be dismantled (especially against the backdrop of reports that DPRK started the construction of nuclear power plants that Kim mentioned in his New Year speech). Importantly, Pyongyang is ready to do this in the presence of international experts letting them see for themselves that these nuclear facilities have really been destroyed.
Secondly, Kim is ready to change the general political line and tone down the current level of the demonization of the US in the country. Vietnam as the venue for the meeting is a very good symbol of this. On the one hand, nobody has forgotten the Vietnam War and US war crimes, but on the other hand the US is not an object of continuous demonization and is even trying to win Vietnam’s support in its confrontation with China.
Thirdly, judging by the reports about the negotiations, Kim is ready to discuss the transfer of data on its nuclear missile program to the US. Judging by the bargain the sides will strike, this may be either a secret appendix or a preliminary list, the verification of which will take time. Most probably, this list will be followed by numerous specifications on the one hand, and by requirements of inspections and suspicions that the North Koreans certainly did not show everything, on the other. Incidentally, this fuss and related imitation of activity will look good in public, which will benefit Trump and will help Kim procrastinate the process.
Fourthly, there is an opinion that Kim is unofficially selling North Korea’s neutrality in Trump’s confrontation with China. Although ties between Beijing and Pyongyang are not that close as they seem to Washington, this is an important stake in a big game for Trump.
In exchange the North would like to see some real confidence-building measures, primarily the declaration on the end of the Korean War. Ideally, this should not be just a verbal declaration but some legal document that will signal a step towards potential mutual recognition.
The North also wants sanctions to be eased but Washington is convinced that Pyongyang agreed to dialogue not because of its own free will but under pressure of the sanctions, so it is not worth giving up the main instrument of coercion. Removal of sanctions before North Korea’s complete disarmament will be an unacceptable concession and the most likely compromise would be limited to the non-imposition of new sanctions and the lifting of sanctions on specific projects linked to inter-Korean cooperation and humanitarian aid. Trump will be able to present this as selective exceptions that do not change the general trend.
The United States demands two things more or less outright. First, Pyongyang should confirm its commitment to denuclearization. Second, the list of nuclear facilities should be as detailed as possible. According to some sources, the US demands information not only on the location of bases or the number of nuclear warheads but also the names of the main developers.
It is possible that the sides will discuss not only nuclear topics but missile topics too. The US public is seriously worried about North Korean ICBMs that are theoretically capable of reaching mainland US. Judging by some leaks, Pyongyang is offering to give them to China to store.
As for goodies from the US side, Trump has promised many things but at first the North should disarm itself. For this reason, all promises of economic support and investment that will turn the DPRK into a “great economic power” are no more than just promises.
In reality Trump can make concessions on the issue of the end of the Korean War because the US-North Korean document will not have the problems that prevent the signing of a similar document between the North and the South that do not recognize each other. Trump may also agree to limited measures on humanitarian cooperation.
An opportunity of reducing or withdrawing US troops from South Korea is far more interesting. Their upkeep has been recently a subject of protracted and difficult talks during which an opportunity of their withdrawal in case of Seoul’s refusal to assume additional obligations has been stated quite clearly. This is important because if this happens, it will be presented as part of an effort to cut costs rather than a concession to North Korea.
It is important to understand that the deployment of US troops in South Korea has symbolic rather than real significance today. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, the South Korean army is quite capable of protecting itself. The US troops have more of an infrastructure support role so their reduction or withdrawal will do reputational rather than military-political damage. This is all the more so since the US army’s logistics capabilities will make it possible to move to South Korea enough troops in a critical situation, simultaneously dealing long-distance strikes with precision weapons.
However, both South Korean conservatives and part of the US military are against “America abandoning its allies.” Moreover, an agreement on the distribution of expenses has been signed after all, so this problem is suspended until next year.
So, the summit is most likely to take place. It will become a step but not a breakthrough in the rapprochement between DPRK and the US and will determine some minimal level of mutual concessions. The most expected combination is that North Korea will completely dismantle its old nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and its launching pad in Tongch'ang-dong, and maybe will also give the US a version of the list of its facilities. Then Trump and Kim will announce the end of the Korean War and for some time the US will not object to the lifting of sanctions on some projects.
What will happen next depends on what agreement Trump and Kim reach because even the most likely option can still fail to materialize. Be it as it may, we should not forget that the current easing of tension or the pause fully correspond to the double freeze plan that was once proposed by China and Russia.
Konstantin Asmolov, Russian Federation. Leading Research Fellow at the Korean Studies Center, RAS Institute for Far Eastern Studies.