SEOUL - The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in roughly two weeks is being seen by some as cause for optimism, but also as a moment of truth.
Park In-hook, the president of the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, said during the organization's inaugural trilateral conference on China, U.S., and South Korean issues, there’s a lot of emphasis on the February 27-28 talks in Hanoi “because there is some phobia that this might be the last chance.”
Real results expected in Hanoi
Former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Yun said the international community had the right to expect results from the Hanoi summit.
“The first meeting (Singapore summit) succeeded in breaking a barrier, [the] second meeting must show results… [there] are two underlying issues. One is denuclearization and a second is building a peace process,” said Yun.
He added there is a fear in the United States that getting into a peace track might lead to the acceptance of nuclear weapons in North Korea.
“Many people in Washington are worried about this concept of denuclearization through peace, because that seems to most Americans... backwards. It should be denuclearization first, then peace,” said Yun.
Recently, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun spent nearly three days engaged in talks with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, in Pyongyang. While Biegun called the discussions “productive,” he also noted that much work still needed to be done.
"President Trump has made clear, both to North Korea as well as to our team, that he expects significant and verifiable progress on denuclearization -- actions that are bold, and real to emerge from that next summit,” said Biegun.
Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Trump administration is “getting a lot more realistic” about what’s needed for serious negotiations to take place in Hanoi.
“We are unlikely to learn whether Kim Jong Un is really willing to give up his nuclear weapons,” Einhorn said. He added that he “strongly doubts” the Trump administration can secure a commitment from North Korea to completely denuclearize.
But he added there is an alternative course of action than returning to a “strategy of squeezing the North Koreans economically, deterring North Korea's aggressive behavior, and eventually bring about its fundamental transformation or collapse.”
“Negotiate an interim agreement that would cap, and perhaps reduce, North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities,” he said.
It’s something Einhorn believes would allow North Korea and the United States to continue negotiations toward the goal of complete denuclearization, but without a deadline.
Such a deal would have some disadvantages, he said, but it could also limit Pyongyang’s weapons development progress and open channels of communication that could be used to pursue confidence-building measures to reduce tensions and avoid dangerous miscalculations.
Can the process move forward?
Despite a general sense of optimism surrounding the upcoming summit, there is still the possibility of continued “stagnation,” or the status quo, said Zhang Fangming, chairman of the Academic Committee of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.
He said this may happen if “[North Korea] refuses to make a nuclear declaration in any form at the current stage or does not accept verification of its declaration.”
Another scenario that may perpetuate the status quo revolves around the U.S. Congress’ response to the summit and if they refuse to gradually lift sanctions against Pyongyang without it first comprehensively abandoning its nuclear program or making a comprehensive declaration.
Zhang said the “only correct choice is to jointly make [a] long term and worthy effort for the full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
But Kim Sung-han, South Korea’s former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said President Trump may agree to “something attractive to the U.S. for the easing of sanctions on North Korea.”
“President Trump could choose a part of the North Korean nuclear problem… like ICMBs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) because they are the most threatening to the safety of U.S. citizens,” said Kim.
But the problem, according to Kim Sung-han, is that if, after two summits, Trump and Kim do not come to an agreement where Pyongyang declares its nuclear capability, then the United States would be acquiescing to North Korea’s tactics.
Handong Global University professor Kim Joonhyung said both Kim Jong Un and President Trump are aware of the criticisms.
He said the Hanoi meeting is very much a “moment of truth.”
“If this [summit] fails,” he said, he doesn’t think there will be future meetings between the two leaders.
He added that the big question for the upcoming summit is, “How much sanctions relief Trump is willing to offer in exchange for [partial denuclearization.]”