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.
The United States aims to "get as far down the road as we can" ahead of a summit with North Korea in Vietnam this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.
Pompeo said he was sending his team back to Asia in the coming days for further discussions around all issues discussed at a groundbreaking Singapore summit last June between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
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.
When Singapore played host in June to the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, businesspeople in the city-state made money from summit-themed merchandise and side events. About 2,500 journalists visited, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted saying the summit would bolster his country’s image abroad.
Now Vietnam, as host to a second Kim-Trump summit scheduled for February 27-28, should expect to get even more, country specialists say.
The summit in Hanoi, likely covering U.S.
"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.
Power-strapped North Korea is exploring two ambitious alternative energy sources, tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels, that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on oil imports and vulnerability to sanctions.
Finding a lasting energy source that isn’t vulnerable to sanctions has long been a priority for North Korean officials.
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.
North Korea's nuclear and other military capabilities remain unchanged and still pose a threat to the United States and its allies, the top U.S. military commander in South Korea told a Senate hearing Tuesday.
"Little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea's military capabilities," despite Pyongyang's public statements about denuclearization, General Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Forces Korea, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The comments underscore the stalled diplomacy between the U.S.
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.”
In 1986, when William Brown, a onetime U.S. intelligence official and government economist, was stationed in Seoul, he ran into a Vietnamese delegation at the Plaza Hotel. They were in town for the Asian Games.
Once the delegation learned Brown was an American official, “they immediately became formal and, as if they had approved diplomatic instructions” told Brown they were very impressed with how the U.S. had built up Seoul and said their government wanted to bury the hatchet with Washington so the U.S. could do the same for Vietnam.
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.]”