Last week Kim Yong Chol, the lead negotiator to the US, visited Washington DC for a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the immediate aftermath of that meeting it was announced that a second summit was planned for mid to late February. Whilst the location has yet to be announced (or agreed upon) one thing remains clear; This summit will make or break the troubled nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump meeting Marshall Kim Jong Un in Singapore
The first US-DPRK summit was subject to extreme hype given the historical precedent being set by the two leaders. It was the first time a Supreme Leader of the DPRK had met with a sitting US President and hopes were high for a landmark agreement between the two countries. However… that didn’t happen. The US-DPRK joint declaration was nothing more than a shortlist of vague clauses affirming each leaders commitment to peace, prosperity, and denuclearisation without any timeframe for denuclearisation or any major concessions being made by either side. Despite the Trump administration hailing the Singapore summit as a huge breakthrough and a great success very little was actually achieved. Even many of the more basic concessions which Washington were expected to push for, such as a declaration of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal or a verified dismantling of a testing site, seemed to allude Donald Trump and his team. The general consensus among experts was that the Singapore meeting was a huge win for Marshall Kim Jong Un and the DPRK since they managed to secure a moratorium on US-South Korea military drills without giving up anything significant themselves. So going into the second summit what will each side be aiming to achieve and how much of that is realistic?
The United States will need to gain some significant concessions from this meeting. This summit comes after months of stalled negotiations between lower level officials during which very little has been achieved, at least publicly. Major concessions would include a full inventory of nuclear weapons and/or missile systems, the locations of significant missile and nuclear weapon development and testing facilities and perhaps also an agreement to allow international inspectors in to certain sites. It is likely that Pyongyang will pledge to dismantle some missile testing sites since we’ve seen that already. In 2018 the DPRK partially dismantled the Tongchang-ri missile site in an apparent concession but this yielded no significant result for Pyongyang and so the halting of demolition work. 38North reported in November 2018 that low-level activity and the installation of new equipment was ongoing at the site. One thing is for sure; if Trump is unable to wheedle any concrete concessions from Marshall Kim Jong Un at the summit then we will be back to square one. The Singapore summit was roundly criticised by analysts for the lack of solid agreements beyond vague pledges and that resulted in no timeframe or even definition for denuclearisation. This ‘last-chance’ summit needs to provide some clear, detailed agreements or else the stalled negotiations will continue to falter.
The DPRK has made it clear in the last few months that it will not make any concessions without equal concessions from Washington. One of the most significant issues for Pyongyang is that of sanctions which, whilst hindering the economy, are also hindering North-South bilateral relations and their ongoing joint-economic and infrastructure projects. The relaxing of some or all sanctions is likely to be a deal-breaker for the DPRK as soon as they sit down at the negotiating table. Another major item up for discussion will likely be the US military presence in the Republic of Korea; this is something that has been a constant bugbear for Pyongyang since the end of the Korean war and it is likely that Marshall Kim Jong Un will point to the recent destruction of military guard-posts along the DMZ as proof that the DPRK no longer harbours militaristic intentions against its southern neighbour. Speaking of the Korean War, one of the major divisive issues between the two sides over the past year has been the ‘peace treaty’ issue. The DPRK spoke out in 2018 against the US using the idea of a formal peace declaration to end the Korean war as a bargaining chip. This topic could well come up during the summit and may well be demanded by the northern side without any concession offered in return given their recent rhetoric on the topic. The formal ending of the war would likely make the US presence in the ROK, along with weapons such as the THAAD system, less acceptable in the eyes of Pyongyang and certain members of the international community.
What is really going to happen?
It’s difficult to make a prediction with such an unpredictable President occupying the White House. The last summit saw Donald Trump suddenly cancel joint military exercises with the ROK without consulting or even informing the south Korean military. Whilst the President prides himself on his negotiating skills the evidence seems to suggest he isn’t as ironclad of a negotiator as he would have us believe. He came out of the last meeting without any concessions from Pyongyang and touted huge success. His statements since the Singapore summit seem to suggest a naive belief that talks are progressing well and so it’s hard to say what we can expect from this new summit. Whether Trump will accept more vague pledges in exchange for important concessions remains to be seen. However, Donald Trump needs a political ‘win’ given his historically low approval rating linked to the month-long government shutdown and the recent announcements from top Democrats of their 2020 candidacy. Does this mean he will be willing to accept any deal as long as he gets something he can brag about? Who knows. Either way, we can be sure that the negotiators in Pyongyang will be exploring every possible option in order to achieve their end goal… whatever that may be.