BY: ANDY LAUB
Another high profile summit between U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is slated to take place next week in Hanoi. The location choice carries heavy symbolism, given that like Korea, the United States fought for years in Vietnam’s bloody Civil War in the 1960’s and 70’s on the side of South Vietnam that ultimately lost to the Northern Vietnamese communist who remain in power. However, the United States was able to normalize relations in the 1990’s under the Clinton Administration and help from the bipartisan work of then Senator John Kerry and the late Senator John McCain, both Vietnam War Veterans and still greatly admired today in the country. The United States went on and continues to have strong diplomatic relations with Vietnam and robust economic partnership. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said, “In light of the once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership we have with Vietnam today, I have a message for Chairman Kim Jong Un…President Trump believes your country can replicate this path. It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment. The miracle could be yours; it can be your miracle in North Korea as well.” But it’s not that simple, Vietnam and North Korea are very different places. Vietnam does not have nuclear weapons or pose a threat to its neighbors and does not have the cult of personality hereditary leadership in the Kim dynasty that personifies North Korea. It’s doubtful that the Vietnam model will sway Kim Jong-Un to give up his nuclear weapons program.
Leading up to the summit on the positive side, there does seem to be more active diplomacy happening than there was before Singapore. The State Department’s Special Envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun has met with his North Korean counterpart Kim Hyok Chol twice, in Stockholm as well as in Pyongyang. Biegun was not yet settled into his position for the first summit in Singapore. He has also been briefing US allies in South Korea as well as members of Congress. Additionally, there is renewed talk of opening liaison offices between the United States and North Korea, any continued dialogue and communication is very constructive to making the diplomatic process much easier and more efficient. Back in January the United States also signaled it was open to an interim deal with North Korea in-terms of the country potentially allowing some inspectors in to witness more nuclear sites being dismantled in exchange for mild sanctions relief, but that is something that is more poised to happen after the next summit.
On the more concerning side is President Trump and his unpredictability in such a negotiation when he tends to follow his gut as opposed to listening to his advisors. He also relies on what he perceives to be a good relationship with Kim Jong-Un to reach a deal but not a long ranging nuclear arms agreement. Furthermore, his use of flattery claiming that he and Kim Jong-Un fell in love exposes a key weakness that Kim has continued to exploit in writing letters that contain flowery language and can be a sure bet will be on full display in Vietnam next week. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the first Secretary of State to visit North Korea in 2000, in a recent interview said “what is worrisome to me is, in an effort to be flattered by Kim Jong-un, that he gives away something that might have a longer term effect for the next administration.”
President Trump is also in the midst of several unpopular domestic political troubles including a 35-day government shutdown and decision to declare a national emergency to fund a border to be built between the United States and Mexico. Thus, he is looking for a distraction hoping things improve in Vietnam to help his popularity. This puts him in the weaker position, especially after Singapore, where he was seen making concessions without obtaining any overarching commitments in return from North Korea. Kim Jong-Un knows this and will also seek to exploit it at the summit in-terms of trying to win over more concessions from the United States. Finally and perhaps most importantly, President Trump’s own intelligence community broke with him on North Korea; during the presentation of the annual Global Threat Assessment National Intelligence Director Dan Coats in his testimony stated,“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” This compared to President Trump, who has previously said “things are going very well with North Korea…”We have made a lot of progress as far as denuclearization is concerned and we’re talking about a lot of different things.” North Korea has not taken any meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program since the first summit in Singapore and the intelligence continues to find that they are only continuing to expand sites. Thus, there will be more pressure on Trump and the U.S to get something more positive and substantive out of Vietnam given Kim Jong-Un has the leverage.
In-terms of the actual summit itself, expect the same relevant issues to be brought up, particularly for the North Korean sanctions. Kim Jong-Un wants to open up his economy to bring more benefits to his impoverished population, which will help him stay in power. He also aims to become more of a geopolitical player, but not at the expense of giving up his entire nuclear weapons program or grip on power in the hopes of becoming more like its ally China that opened up its markets but still retains a strong communist hold on political power. The United States will seek more access to the North’s nuclear weapons program, in-terms of a possible declaration of all their nuclear sites, which seems far fetched at the moment. The U.S could also seek a greater role in the inspection and verification of nuclear site destructions to have something to show for the summit. There could also be quite a bit of talk about a peace declaration, which would begin the process of replacing the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 with a peace regime. This sounds good on the surface since everybody wants peace but it calls into question greater complications when it comes to the United States’ presence in the region in-terms of its troop presence in South Korea and Japan. One of the main points of contention between the United States and North Korea is the definition of denuclearization, where the United States sees North Korea giving up their weapons versus North Korea which see’s it as denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula which means no U.S strategic assets in South Korea like the THAAD missile system, U.S troops as well as the nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and Japan from a possible attack from North Korea. Kim Jong-Un most likely see’s President Trump as the most likely President he can strike a deal with on this premise given his negative attitude towards alliances. If the two sides can make progress on bridging the gap of denuclearization and make concrete goals, Vietnam could be a success, but if its just another photo-op than not so much.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.