Amid all the media speculation feeding off Trump’s own optimistic commentary and resolute scepticism of many long term Korea watchers there are some recent glimmers of very limited progress emerging from the Hanoi Summit. After a late start, the lead US negotiator Biegun has reported encouraging discussions with Kim’s negotiating team first in Sweden and now in Hanoi. Though understandably Secretary of State Pompeo has cautioned that there is still a long road ahead. The crux of the discussions remains an agreed definition of “denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsular” – left unresolved after the Singapore Summit.
Much will depend this time on how the Hanoi Summit is managed. Will there be a repeat of a long one-on-one meeting between the two leaders without note takers (Kim’s side will have used his interpreter unlike Trump who banned his !) followed by a lunch/dinner with senior members of both teams present? Or will there be an attempt at an agreed public statement summarising the outcome and negotiated in advance by officials – as is the norm? Trump’s track record would suggest that he will insist on being front and centre and that any outcomes be presented (or spun) as his personal victories. Kim’s tactics have been to raise any critical issues to a personal level with Trump with whom he seems comfortable managing. His success in Singapore and the so called bromance between them which Trump boasted last year would only reinforce this tactic.
How the definitional discussion is managed will be crucial for the outcome of the Summit. Some limited and tentative headway seems to have been made in the officials’ negotiations. Naturally given his style, whether Trump has fully endorsed them or will hold to them in Hanoi, still has to be considered an open question. The DPRK side certainly will have cleared their lines with Kim but he still has the last word. The major issues on “denuclearisation” include :
· Area : both Koreas and their territorial seas? Any US nuclear capability based in the ROK or flown in?
· Inventory: independent US experts assess that this will be a massive task given fissile material already used in tests, weapons manufacture and exported to Syria for an aborted project there
· Costs: decommissioning of nuclear plants in the US and elsewhere have been extremely expensive and highly technical on safety and waste management – clearly beyond the DPRK’s own resources. Who to fund – even if through IAEA?
· End date : Full denuclearisation itself is bound to be a lengthy process. Can extreme sanctions be maintained until that has been achieved?
As many have argued from the outset, Trump’s insistence on “extreme pressure “ (tough sanctions) being maintained until “complete” denuclearisation was patently unrealistic : Complete,Irreversible,Verifiable Denuclearisation – CIVD. The period since Singapore has seen increasing pressure from China to recognise that the process would have to be a long and complex one with matching concessions on both sides along the way. In the past few months China and the ROK have suggested that a changed “roadmap” needed to be negotiated between Trump and Kim which could create the pathway to how full denuclearisation could eventually be achieved. This would include matching action by each side to actions taken by the others along the way..
Initially Trump held firmly to his CIVD policy. Further any suggestion of a logical “roadmap” appeared the antithesis of Trump’s negotiating style which relies so much on his fetish for unpredictability. Surprisingly missed by most of the media, Biegun’s first extended public comment indicated that the US was prepared to move step-by-step with the North toward complete denuclearisation “simultaneously and in parallel” starting with a peace declaration. He also hinted at US willingness to relax some sanctions before CIVD had been achieved and added : “ it is all the more urgent that we engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own.” He provided an extensive list of possible confidence building measures the US was keen to explore.
Given the contemporary scene in Washington one had to wonder whether Biegun had White House cover for such apparently major shifts in US policy? Pompeo had earlier started to play word games using expressions like “final, fully verified denuclearization” but no new acronym or “irreversible”! When pushed by the media he retreated to assert that nothing had changed in Trump’s position on this issue!“ Subsequently, however, Trump has tweeted about it not being so urgent to reach complete denuclearisation- it could take a long time even decades. He has now gone further Already accepted the need for a phased negotiation process but only by “big bites” not steps! It will be very interesting to see how Trump spins all of this in Hanoi so that he can represent it as not backtracking. ! He has now to make a virtue out of this change so watch this space!
In Hanoi Trump may be prepared to make some limited actions to match those the North has already taken. Here the critical question will be whether he will agree to some loosening of sanctions (which is what will be top of Kim’s list) or to a commitment to a final peace treaty (which seems to be what the US wants) or some mixture of both. Biegun has set out the long menu of lesser important actions which could be included in any packaging of a Hanoi agreement. President Moon has also lobbied hard for the steps being taken in his negotiations with Kim to be linked somehow to the US:DPRK process – so confirming Washington’s cover for the growing cooperation between the two Koreas – as a forerunner to “Koreanizing” the issue. One likely outcome is the establishment by the US of a Liaison Office in the DPRK to facilitate ongoing discussions across the broad agenda of continuing negotiations between the US and North Korea hopefully ahead.
There are already many in the US administration, the ROK and Japan extremely anxious about any deals cut directly in the Trump:Kim private session as Trump offered up on joint US:ROK military exercises in Singapore without prior consultation with his team or the ROK. Trump will be have more than weather eye on the US domestic scene and the campaign he has already commenced for re-election in 2020. He desperately needs a foreign policy win in this exercise to bolster the mounting setbacks he has suffered in foreign and domestic issues. He must be expected to make some surprising decisions in Hanoi and will be keen to try to maintain his “bromance” with Kim.
Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea