The second US-North Korea summit meet, eight months after the Singapore Summit, is scheduled to take place in Hanoi on 27-28 February 2019. There is skepticism regarding the potential outcomes of this meeting, based on three important factors.
First, the US and North Korea have not changed their fundamental positions in the past eight months. Both of them are primarily concerned with their own foreign policy goals and remain unwilling to concede much ground. In fact, US President Donald Trump, while making conciliatory statements about Kim Jong-un, has also given more space to ‘hawks’ such as Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and US Special Representative for North Korean Policy Mark Lambert. Kim, too, has been driving a hard bargain. At one point he disputed North Korea’s denuclearisation as the sole goal and put forth preconditions in a North Korean official daily. The US would like to address denuclearisation followed by easing of sanctions, whereas North Korea prefers it the other way round. In this atmosphere of a clear divergence in fundamental goals, to expect anything substantial from the Hanoi summit would be naive.
Second, for the success of any summit meet, it is important to lay the ground work in advance. The more public meeting between top leaders is generally symbolic and its contents based on the process, roadmaps and timelines agreed on at earlier discussions. North Korea avoided pre-summit meetings after Singapore, and did not allow US special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun to visit North Korea until this month. North Korean representative Kim Yong Chol’s November 2018 meeting with Mike Pompeo was also cancelled, and Kim did not meet with Pompeo when he visited Pyongyang. With pre-summit exchanges at various levels of government clearly absent, a detailed and comprehensive plan for North Korean denuclearisation and concomitant US security guarantee during the Hanoi summit seems improbable.
Third, North Korea and the US came to negotiating table following reports of a breakdown in communications between China and North Korea, and more stringent imposition of Chinese sanctions on the latter. In less than a year since, Chinese and North Korean leaders had three summit meetings with better communications in place and a closer alignment of positions. China has openly demanded a proportionate easing of sanctions on the basis of “some positive developments” regarding North Korean denuclearisation. North Korea has augmented its strategic depth, and in this changed scenario, it will not be easy to extract unilateral benefits from North Korea in the Hanoi Summit.
Having laid the foundations of the prevailing environment of skepticism, it is important to also acknowledge a few important changes to arrive at a more holistic overview of the summit.
First, there has been some change in position. Even though the broad approach has not undergone any significant change, Trump and Kim have shown some flexibility. They are aware the lack of any movement whatsoever in Hanoi would spell the end of the US-North Korea engagement process, which, in the long-run, will have negative implications for their eventual goals as well as the domestic environment. It is for this reason that Trump has been indicating that he is in no ‘hurry’. He has also said that the US will continue with the rapprochement if there is clear evidence of progress. In addition, they have the hindsight of knowing what went wrong during the Singapore Summit, and neither will want to commit the same mistakes again.
Two, South Korea, which has been pivotal to the current phase of US-North Korea engagement, is equally concerned about the Hanoi Summit. It has been in touch with both North Korea and the US and is attempting to bridge the gap between their strategic goals. In fact, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has long displayed an interest in good bilateral relations with North Korea, and inter-Korea dynamics can suffer if there is no parallel progress between the US and North Korea. There is speculation that if Hanoi hits a dead-end, it could also lead to a rift in South Korea-US ties.
Third, if we assume that there has been an important tactical shift even if the larger US and North Korean strategic goals remain unchanged, it means that there is still a possibility of charting a forward course, if not a final and comprehensive agreement on denuclearisation. The most important reason for the deadlock so far has been the US insistence on complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation in a limited time span. If the US agrees to an incremental process, progress would be perhaps easier to achieve. Further, if the US also corrects its misperception that North Korea came to the negotiating table because of ‘maximum pressure’, it may be possible to arrive at a quid pro quo deal.
Overall, it is indeed difficult to predict the outcomes of the Hanoi Summit, and there are obvious reasons to not be optimistic. However, there are also elements that suggest that important progress can be made.