SEOUL — President Trump has curiously downplayed expectations for next week’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by saying he is in “no rush whatsoever” to get the country to give up its nuclear weapons and, instead, is more focused on keeping the North from restarting nuclear testing.
But Trump also told South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a phone call Tuesday that he expects “great progress” at the summit in Hanoi, according to the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Meanwhile, U.S. envoy Stephen E. Biegun is in Hanoi and is expected to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, again this week as the two sides try to prepare the ground for the summit.
So what can we expect next week? Here’s a look at what each side might bring to the table in Hanoi.
U.S. Demands: Denuclearization steps, ICBMs and a road map
Apart from Trump’s “no rush” comment on dismantling the North’s nuclear program, the U.S. administration has made clear it wants to see final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. It wants to see Kim commit to concrete measures to advance that process at the summit.
Washington would also like to see North Korea dismantle its inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) stockpile and manufacturing program, to reduce the threat of a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland. Such a step could play well for Trump domestically, especially as he thinks about a possible reelection campaign, but too much emphasis on this aspect, without simultaneous steps to denuclearize, would be deeply unsettling to key U.S. ally Japan and to some in South Korea.
Biegun indicated recently that the United States is no longer demanding North Korea hand over a comprehensive list of its nuclear and missile sites up front, a demand Pyongyang has fiercely resisted. Instead he now says this needs to happen “at some point” before full denuclearization.
Ideally the United States would like to agree a road map to achieve denuclearization, with corresponding steps by each side on a path to full denuclearization and friendly relations. Experts say a detailed road map is unlikely to be agreed to at this summit, given the lack of trust between both sides and the fact that working-level talks have only just begun. But as Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security explains, it’s an important goal.
North Korean demands: Sanctions relief and an end-of-war declaration
North Korea’s top priority is to get sanctions relief. Kim has made it clear he wants to boost his country’s economic development, and for that he needs trade and investment. At the top of his agenda are likely to be a relaxation of restrictions on exports of coal and imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products, and a resumption of economic cooperation with South Korea through the joint Kaesong Industrial Zone and the Mount Kumgang joint-tourism project in the North.
North Korea says it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself against possible U.S. invasion and won’t surrender them unless it feels secure.
To that end, Pyongyang has called for a formal declaration that the 1950-53 Korean War is over. The conflict ended in an armistice, and North Korea says the United States needs to show it is committed to a peaceful relationship by declaring the war is over. Such a declaration would be only the first step toward a formal and comprehensive peace treaty.
Most likely signatories would be the United States, North Korea, South Korea and possibly China, although not necessarily by their respective heads of state.
North Korea is also demanding an end to joint military exercises between U.S. and South Korea troops, which it has long characterized as a hostile act and practice for an invasion.
The U.S. offer: Engagement and gradual sanctions relief
Aside from sanctions relief, the United States has a few carrots to offer.
There are easy steps, such as humanitarian assistance and sporting and cultural exchanges (the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played in Pyongyang in 2008).
There are diplomatic moves, too, that could reassure North Korea that a new era in relations has begun, such as the end-of-war declaration.
Another possible deal would involve both countries opening liaison offices in each other’s capitals, a first step toward diplomatic relations. That would grant Pyongyang some of the diplomatic recognition it craves.
The United States has already suspended some military exercises after Trump called them “provocative.” But the U.S. military argues that the exercises are vital to sustain preparedness and won’t be keen to see them permanently end.
Given his desire to bring U.S. troops home from foreign assignments, Trump might even offer to reduce the U.S. troop presence in South Korea from the current 28,500. That’s a step that might play well domestically but could deeply unsettle allies South Korea and Japan, reducing American influence and playing into China’s hands.
Sanctions relief, if it is an offer, will be a gradual process, and sanctions would not be fully lifted until North Korea fully disarms, the Trump administration insists.
There are a number of unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States, South Korea and the European Union. Of these, South Korea’s would be the easiest to unwind.
U.S. sanctions are more complicated and were imposed for a variety of reasons, including human rights abuses, money laundering and support for terrorism, as well as its nuclear weapons program. Some of those sanctions cannot be lifted unless the president certifies to Congress that North Korea has made progress in all those areas, as the Heritage Foundation’s Olivia Enos explains.
Unwinding sanctions agreed by the United Nations Security Council will also be a slow process. Essentially because once unwound, they would be almost impossible to reimpose. The sanctions were imposed in a rare moment of unanimity among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China’s relations with the West are so fraught that unanimous agreement to reimpose sanctions if North Korea cheats on any deal would be extremely hard to reach.
Seoul is hoping for exemptions to the Security Council resolutions for its joint economic development projects such as Kaesong and Mount Kumgang. Restarting the Kaesong economic zone could be complicated without a wider relaxation of sanctions, but reopening the Mount Kumgang tourism zone would be easier, diplomats say.
North Korea’s offer: Yongbyon and maybe more
North Korea has already suspended its nuclear and missile tests. That’s not insignificant. Nuclear scientists say Pyongyang would probably need more tests to prove it can reliably deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States on an ICBM, or weaponize a hydrogen bomb. Still, Pyongyang has already shown significant ability to weaponize and deliver its nuclear bombs and its deterrent is real.
Kim also pledged last year to allow international inspectors in to verify that North Korea has closed down its main nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and a missile engine test site and launchpad at Tongchang-ri. Getting inspectors in anywhere is not irrelevant, but these sites don’t have much value to North Korea anymore, and experts say this shouldn’t be counted as a major new concession in Hanoi.
The most intriguing overture is Kim’s reported offer to close its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which is the heart of the country’s nuclear industry, home to its main reactor and its only source of plutonium. It is also thought to house a major facility to produce highly enriched uranium, which can also be used to make nuclear bombs, as well as possibly a facility to produce tritium for potential hydrogen bombs. But North Korea is also thought to have other sites for uranium enrichment elsewhere in the country.
Kim told Moon in September that he is prepared to permanently dismantle Yongbyon if the United States takes unspecified “corresponding measures.”
Biegun says Kim has even gone a step further and pledged to dismantle and destroy all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium-enrichment facilities at “a complex of sites” extending beyond Yongbyon, if the United States reciprocates with measures of its own.
Closing down Yongbyon would be a “big, big deal” says Siegfried Hecker, a leading nuclear scientist and Stanford professor.
But the devil will be in the details, argues Melissa Hanham of the One Earth Future foundation: Which facilities would North Korea offer to close, what access would inspectors get, and would any closure be permanent and essentially irreversible? The main reactor at Yongbyon has been shut down twice before under previous deals, but North Korea’s nuclear program has started up again later. This time the United States would want a more robust closure.
It is also important to note that closure of Yongbyon and other sites to enrich uranium would be only the start of a long process toward denuclearization. This would still leave North Korea with a significant amount of fissile material and an unknown number of nuclear warheads, and with plenty of missiles to deliver them. But it would be a big step forward that would indicate a seriousness of purpose.
Can a deal be struck?
Opinion is divided. Some experts fear that Trump might settle for a deal that he thinks will play well at home, such as eliminating ICBMs and bringing troops home, but undermines U.S. alliances in Asia and does little or nothing to denuclearize North Korea. Others hope that a deal to dismantle and inspect Yongbyon could represent progress.