Since then, negotiations between the two governments have stalled, with Pyongyang displaying a clear preference for dealing directly with Trump over communicating with members of the president’s administration.
U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun has been repeatedly snubbed in recent months as he attempted to open a dialogue with North Korea. But on Saturday, he had plans to travel to Stockholm to meet his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee.
“Seoul and Washington have done their homework, but the moment of truth will come during real negotiations with Pyongyang now,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, which is based in Seoul.
“A month really isn’t much time if they want substantive results, so they will need to get very busy and serious,” she said. “The next summit will be an indicator of whether real denuclearization can happen at all, how much of it can be done and how long it might take.”
Opinions in Seoul about the likelihood of the summit yielding progress tend to be split along conservative and liberal lines, the former is more cynical about Kim’s intentions.
But both sides agree it’s important for Trump and Kim to go beyond the rhetoric of Singapore and get down to business. Even South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the strongest advocate of the process, called on both men this month to move from abstract talk to concrete action.
But for that to happen, it’s important that Biegun and Choi lay the groundwork over the next few weeks, experts say.
“This will prove challenging as there’s little basis to think that the North Koreans see Biegun as an influential figure within the Trump administration,” said Ankit Panda, adjunct senior fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Joseph Yun, who served as Biegun’s predecessor from 2016 to 2018 and is a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, said another summit like the one in Singapore would “play into North Korea’s hands,” allowing it to drag the process out and helping it establish itself as a de facto nuclear-armed state.
To avoid that, Trump and Kim “need to get down and have some framework, and get some meaningful deliverables within a reasonable period of time,” Yun said.
But a meaningful deal is certainly not unimaginable, he said.
Kim has pledged to dismantle his most important nuclear processing site at Yongbyon if the United States takes “corresponding steps,” while also claiming in a New Year’s Day speech that he has stopped producing weapons.
To pin him down on both those points, with an opportunity for international inspectors to verify the dismantling of Yongbyon, would represent meaningful progress, said Yun.
In return, Kim is likely to demand sanctions relief, with the possibility that the United States allow economic cooperation projects between the two Koreas to go ahead, Yun said.
But concerns are mounting in Japan and among South Korean conservatives that Trump might allow North Korea to focus on the dismantling of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News earlier this month that the main goal of the process was “the security of the American people.”
“It’s understandable that the United States is primarily concerned with long-range missiles that could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland,” said Mintaro Oba, a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former diplomat at the State Department’s Korea desk. “But Washington has made a defense commitment to its allies, and it’s vital that it seek to reduce the threat not only to itself but to its regional partners.”
That was a worry also reflected in an editorial in South Korea’s conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper Saturday, which warned that the United States might even offer to withdraw some troops from South Korea in return for the removal of North Korea’s long-range missiles, leaving South Korea “the only one left disorientated.”
Oba sees value in a summit that “creates a positive atmosphere, reduces tensions and further builds the relationship between the two leaders.”
But he is less optimistic about the chances of the two men making substantive progress toward denuclearization, with neither side showing much sign of shifting their positions.
“The hurdles are still high,” he said. “This would not be a big problem with the right public messaging, but the more ambitious the goals Washington emphasizes in public, the greater room for the second summit to be perceived as a failure.”
North Korea appears to have raised its demands since the last summit in Singapore, demanding a declaration that the Korean War of the 1950s is over, sanctions relief, an end to joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea and a suspension in “the introduction of war equipment, including strategic assets from outside.”
There is also concern that Kim has not been asked to spell out exactly what he means by “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and whether he is ultimately demanding that the United States withdraw its forces from South Korea and nuclear-armed submarines and bombers from the region. That’s a key question that gets to the heart of whether a deal is even possible, many experts say.
While the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper warned that a rushed summit might result in “dangerous acquiescence to a nuclear North Korea,” the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said the meeting between Trump and Kim might make meaningful progress.
“But we need to take a deep breath,” it argued in a piece titled “The Last Chance.”
“The clock is ticking. One or two months from now will be a turning point. Demonstrating sincerity toward denuclearization is the only way for North Korea to go.”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.