The second Trump-Kim summit
On 27–28 February, US President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. Both Trump and Kim will be eager to obtain symbolic concessions. These could ｉｎｃｌｕｄｅ an agreement to declare an end to the Korean War. Such a gesture could be helpful if it contributed to improved long-term relations on the Korean Peninsula, but Washington should treat with caution the prospect of an accompanying withdrawal of US forces from South Korea.
On 27–28 February, US President Donald Trump is due to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the second time in less than a year, this time in Hanoi, Vietnam. There has been little meaningful diplomatic progress since their previous summit in Singapore in July 2018, and the two sides have differing definitions of their apparently shared goal of ‘denuclearisation’. Both Trump and Kim will wish to return from Vietnam with symbolic concessions, and it is possible that they will agree to declare an end to the Korean War. Diplomatic gestures of this kind would be helpful if they improved long-term relations on the Korean Peninsula, especially if accompanied by meaningful concessions from North Korea on its nuclear and missile programmes. There is a risk, however, that peace between Washington and Pyongyang might contribute to an untimely withdrawal of US forces from South Korea, encouraging dangerous misconceptions in Pyongyang that could ultimately make conflict more likely.
Trump and Kim’s first encounter in Singapore in June 2018 produced an imprecise agreement outlining four points of action: the normalisation of US–North Korean relations; the building of a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula; a commitment by North Korea to work towards the complete ‘denuclearisation’ of the peninsula; and the recovery of remains from the Korean War. On all but the last point, progress has been slow.
While North Korea has adhered to a self-imposed moratorium on conducting further nuclear and long-range missile tests, it has not halted its nuclear or missile programmes. Its fissile-material production facilities at Yongbyon and possibly at one or more covert locations remain operational. In 2018, these could have produced an estimated five to eight kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and up to 150 kg of highly-enriched uranium. This material would allow North Korea to add five to seven nuclear weapons to its existing arsenal, which is estimated at between 20 and 60 weapons. Pyongyang has also continued steps to ensure the survivability of its missile programmes against US military strikes by dispersing its assembly, maintenance and storage locations among civilian facilities. Open-source reporting has revealed the locations of missile operating bases and factories linked to the programme, further illustrating the scale and opacity of Pyongyang’s capabilities and the challenges these pose for any future monitoring and verification process.
It is unsurprising that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme remains operational, given that it has made no explicit agreement to suspend, let alone dismantle it. Moreover, as US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun admitted in a speech at Stanford University on 31 January, the US and North Korea do not share a common definition of the term ‘denuclearisation’. While the US has defined it as the verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme, Pyongyang has consistently interpreted denuclearisation as the removal of all nuclear threats from the entire Korean Peninsula, including US troops and the extended nuclear deterrent. While any suspension of nuclear or missile programmes beyond the moratorium on testing would be beneficial, even if temporary, as long as this artful ambiguity remains about the ultimate shared goal, real progress towards permanent North Korean nuclear disarmament will be fitful at best.
The Trump administration may hope that the symbolism of the second summit’s location – a former communist foe of the US that is now market-friendly and keen to align itself with Washington – will encourage Kim to choose the path of grand bargains and economic reform. On 24 February, Trump claimed Kim had already realised ‘that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the world’. Trump most likely wishes for the summit to result in further symbolic gestures, especially if he can brandish these to the electorate in his campaign for re-election in 2020. He would probably be unconcerned if North Korea’s nuclear programme continued to operate for some time, having stated that ‘I don’t want to rush anybody. I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.’
It remains possible that Kim does indeed intend one day to trade his nuclear and missile capabilities for the normalisation of relations with the US and capitalist reform and investment. Yet the past 25 years of diplomatic history suggest it is more probable that Kim does not intend on ever relinquishing his nuclear weapons, and that after obtaining additional concessions from the US, the cycles of threats and subsequent ‘diplomatic offensives’ will continue. That said, while US and North Korean long-term visions of the Korean Peninsula’s future diverge, in the near term it is likely that Kim, like Trump, seeks symbolic concessions that will allow him to present the Hanoi summit as a victory to his domestic audience.
From Singapore to Hanoi
Substantive progress since last year’s summit has been meagre. Working-level negotiations following the Singapore summit were difficult to establish, in part because the process was reversed from typical methods of organising summits, in that it started at the highest level rather than building up to it. On several occasions, North Korean negotiators have refused to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Biegun. Pyongyang has refused to accede to US demands for a full declaration of the extent of its nuclear programme. A complete inventory of all nuclear facilities, material and equipment would create transparency and serve as a baseline for longer-term verification. Pyongyang, however, claims such a declaration is analogous to handing over a target list, especially without sufficient levels of trust or commensurate steps to normalise US–North Korean relations.
Another point of contention has been the Trump administration’s insistence that the US would not lift any sanctions until denuclearisation was complete. This position starkly contradicts North Korean calls for parallel and simultaneous actions on all elements of the Singapore agreement. In late January, Biegun hinted at a more flexible approach, suggesting that while sanctions would remain in place until denuclearisation was achieved, this did not signify ‘we won’t do anything until you do everything’. Instead, negotiators were exploring actions that could be taken ‘simultaneously and in parallel’ – possibly including sanctions waivers, establishing a liaison office, or declaring an end to the Korean War – and which could form part of an interim agreement to improve US–North Korean relations and build confidence.
As pressure from external commentators for more tangible results on disarmament has increased, several members of the administration, including Trump himself, have tried to temper expectations. In a tweet on 30 January, he claimed there was now a ‘decent chance of denuclearization’ and, in his state of the union address, noted that while his relationship with Kim was good, ‘much work remains to be done’. This was far more measured that his famous declaration after the Singapore summit that there was ‘no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea’. Pompeo has recently acknowledged that this nuclear threat remains.
The time frame within which negotiators were expected to produce substantial results on disarmament has been unrealistically short. When commenting on the progress of working-level meetings, Biegun noted it would be hard to resolve remaining disputes before the summit. While the Hanoi summit offers an opportunity to flesh out commitments and establish a negotiation road map and timeline, insufficient preparations will most likely produce only minor cosmetic additions to the ambiguous and largely aspirational statement issued after the Singapore summit. This would risk leaving at an impasse any working-level negotiations, which have been more frequent since plans for the second summit were formalised in January. Ensuring that working-level meetings continue after 28 February, alongside consultations with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, will be essential for any long-term diplomatic process beyond high-level summitry.
Given the limited time that has been available to negotiators, both sides can only realistically hope to reach an interim agreement in Hanoi. From the US perspective, it would be useful for such an agreement to ｉｎｃｌｕｄｅ defining certain steps to slow down or freeze North Korea’s nuclear programme, including its means of production and delivery. These steps could advance pledges Kim has already made. They could, for example, codify the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and allow independent inspections to verify the closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear-test site and dismantlement of the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) long-range missile-launch and engine-test site. Freezing North Korea’s production of weapons-grade fissile material would be a significant commitment, one which Biegun suggested was under discussion when referring to the ‘dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities’.
Closing the Yongbyon five-megawatt (electric) gas-graphite reactor, which has featured several times in earlier disarmament diplomacy with North Korea, would be insufficient to fulfil such a commitment, but it would be a necessary starting point. The reactor is used to produce plutonium and most likely tritium, two critical components for high-yield nuclear weapons. The reactor is aging and its dismantlement alone would not prevent Pyongyang from producing and stockpiling enriched uranium, an alternative fissile material for nuclear weapons. Rendering the reactor non-operational would, however, slow down current warhead production. If fully dismantled – rather than just temporarily or partially disabled, as during previous rounds of diplomacy – the reactor would be difficult to replace quickly should negotiations falter. During an inter-Korean summit in September 2018, Kim expressed willingness to permanently dismantle nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in exchange for ‘corresponding measures’ to be taken by the US.
What exactly such measures would involve remains an open question, but Kim was most likely referring to the loosening of sanctions and the normalisation of US–North Korean relations. While the US is insistent that the overall sanctions framework will remain in place, limited US sanctions exemptions aimed at facilitating inter-Korean trade and projects such as the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea (previously a locus for inter-Korean economic cooperation) or joint railway construction would be a relatively straightforward yet symbolic concession. The establishment of a US–North Korea liaison office in Pyongyang would facilitate sustained dialogue and the ongoing diplomatic process. Neither of these gestures, however, are likely to suffice for Pyongyang.
The hostilities of the 1950–53 Korean War were only suspended by an armistice. Signing a joint statement declaring a formal end to the war, as a first step toward a peace treaty and subsequent peace regime, would be a symbolically powerful action. It would also help both Trump and Kim sell the summit as a breakthrough to their respective domestic audiences. If it led ultimately to diminished tensions on the peninsula, such a declaration should be welcomed. Yet, unless handled skilfully, it could increase regional security risks.
The president’s commitment to the alliance with South Korea is uncertain. As with other allies, Trump has made numerous complaints about Seoul’s not contributing sufficiently to its own defence. Uncorroborated reports have emerged that an aide stymied the president’s plans to withdraw from the US–South Korea free trade agreement by removing a letter Trump planned to sign from his desk. While the South Korean administration has itself urged for the war to be declared over, Seoul may have grounds for concern about the announcements Trump could be tempted to make in Hanoi, even if these may be couched in language about building trust and confidence with the North. At the Singapore summit, Trump announced a suspension of joint US–South Korea military exercises, apparently without consulting either Seoul or his own advisors in advance. Although there have been some small-scale drills in the meantime, during 2019 no new announcements relating to joint US–South Korean exercises have so far been made, except the comments made by US Forces Korea commander General Robert Abrams in his February 2019 posture statement which suggested that the US was ‘adjusting’ the design and conduct of exercises to support diplomacy. It is possible that in Hanoi Trump may agree to cease some or all joint exercises permanently or to accept dismantlement measures only aimed at long-range missiles, leaving intact shorter-range missiles that can target South Korea and Japan.
If the prospect of brokering a peace deal with North Korea seemed real, it is also possible that Trump would attempt to sway Pyongyang and/or seek to maximise domestic electoral advantage by announcing the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. An imminent announcement that US forces would be reduced or withdrawn has become less likely since Washington and Seoul concluded an agreement earlier this month on funding the US military presence in South Korea. It is reported, however, that South Korea was willing to broker an agreement with only a one-year term rather than the more typical five-year duration precisely because it feared Trump would otherwise announce troop withdrawals at the Hanoi summit. Such an announcement may become more likely as scrutiny persists of Trump’s exaggerated claims that South Korea has increased its financial contribution by US$500 million (it has in fact agreed to an increase of US$70m).
The risks of withdrawing US forces
The withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula would have a significant practical effect, as well as a powerful psychological effect on Seoul and other US allies in the region and elsewhere. While US troops in Korea number only 28,500, they represent an operationally capable force, and the US military benefits from its recent operational combat experience. In a military crisis, US capabilities would be essential in any attempt to neutralise North Korean missiles or artillery before they were fired. Although South Korea is engaged in a significant military modernisation drive, including moves to develop deep-strike capability and improved air and missile defences, the precipitate withdrawal of US troops would leave South Korean forces substantially less capable. Moreover, the US still retains wartime operational control (OPCON) over US and South Korean forces, although both sides continue to work towards Seoul’s assuming wartime OPCON over its own troops. Discussions over this transfer have lasted for a significant period, and any US withdrawal before South Korean troops had established the necessary capabilities and structures to enable OPCON transfer would produce a serious challenge for Seoul. US troops also serve a political function as a ‘tripwire’ that would trigger a larger US response to any North Korean aggression.
If North Korea were to invade the South, even in the absence of US forces, it would encounter a well-armed and well-trained adversary in the South Korean armed forces. Yet a precipitate withdrawal of US forces would undermine its allies’ confidence and the principle of the US extended deterrent. It is also possible that a US withdrawal, even in the context of an ongoing treaty commitment to South Korea, could encourage Pyongyang to miscalculate that its nuclear weapons would shelter it from meaningful external retaliation during a future attempt at forced reunification.
It is likely that both Trump and Kim will seek symbolic concessions at the Hanoi summit, if only to justify the process to their domestic constituencies. If an announcement of the end of the Korean War produced meaningful North Korean concessions such as the suspension or, better yet, the dismantlement of various elements of its nuclear programme, the Trump administration will have obtained a worthwhile bargain. While the results of disarmament diplomacy with North Korea in recent decades have often been mixed and reversible, such diplomacy is generally preferable to a state of heightened confrontation that could lead easily to conflict. The risk remains, however, that the Trump administration’s desire to demonstrate progress to the US electorate, combined with an instinctive aversion to foreign military commitments, could lead to its offering concessions that ultimately imperilled South Korean and regional security.