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The 2nd US-North Korea Summit and its initial impacts on the region’s security and politics

On February 27th and 28th, 2019, the 2nd US-North Korea Summit was held in Vietnam. In spite of the fact that no joint statement was made, the meeting is thought to be an important landmark in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and partly impact on the region’s security and politics.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump at the Meeting held in Hanoi on February 28th 2019 (photo: VNA)

The reasons for the 2nd Summit

Since Donald Trump took office (November 2016), the relations between America and North Korea have been very intense (from late 2016 to late 2017); the US President even threatened to destroy North Korea if America was forced to defend itself or its allies. Accordingly, in October 2017, America deployed its tactical nuclear forces around the Korean Peninsula which were capable of destroying North Korea for “several times”, making the regional situation extremely intense. Notably, in late November 2017, after the successful test of 2 missiles called Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 which could reach the entire mainland US, North Korea suddenly announced the accomplishment of its strategic nuclear program. Being content with the achievement, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un said that his country would prioritize economic improvement and development.

Since early 2018, the Korean Peninsula has entered a new phase of development, and the inter-Korean relations have unceasingly improved. The two sides have actively sought diplomatic measures to ease the tenseness; North Korea has clearly expressed its hope for the lifted sanctions. To that end, on March 6th 2018, via South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy, North Korea delivered its offer of a direct meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. After the US President accepted the offer, the two countries made all necessary preparations and held the first US-North Korea Summit in Singapore on June 12th 2018. At the meeting, the two sides signed a Joint Statement including 4 main points: (1) The two countries pledged to establish diplomatic ties; (2) The establishment of durable peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula: (3) North Korea pledged itself to the complete denuclearization; (4) The search and return of remains of American soldiers during the Korean war (1950-1953).

However, since the Meeting in Singapore, in fact, the two sides has made no progress; mutual trust has not been consolidated except North Korea’s return of 55 sets of remains of US soldiers. That situation disappointed America, and it believed that there should be a 2nd Summit to achieve the breakthroughs and realize the Joint Statement in Singapore. The 2nd Meeting should have happened earlier; however, due to differences between the two sides, in late November 2018, the two countries came to agree on the principles for the 2nd Meeting.

Relevant countries, such as China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, all supported the 2nd US-North Korea Summit at various degrees and hoped that it would bring peace and stability to the two countries and the region as well as give these countries a chance to expand their market in and cooperation with North Korea when America would lift its sanctions.

The Summit’s results and the initial impacts

In spite of a lot of expectations, the 2nd US-North Korea Summit could not release a joint statement, and the two sides did not sign any document. According to experts around the world, there are 3 main reasons as follows.

First, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an important, extremely complex issue which should be dealt with in a long time while the mutual trust is at a low level, and there were too few negotiations between the two sides’ competent offices before the Meeting. Therefore, negotiators did not have enough bases and information about denuclearization to give advice to their supreme leaders. In fact, diplomats from the two countries had only 4 rounds of negotiations in Stockholm (Sweden), Bangkok (Thailand), Pyongyang (North Korea), and Hanoi (Vietnam). In such a short time, the two sides could hardly solve all issues related to North Korea’s nuclear profile.

Besides, the core issues raised by America and North Korea to be solved were too large. More specifically, America would like to see “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula right in the first term of the President Donald Trump while North Korea only wanted to pursue a partial denuclearization deal under a road map which this country could control. Concerning the lifting of sanctions, America would lift sanctions against North Korea only after Pyongyang completely denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, according to North Korea, it would completely destroy its Jongbyon nuclear complex unless America lifted its sanctions which had been imposed since March 2016 (including 5 out of 11 sanctions that had most directly, deeply impacted on North Korea’s economy and society and its people’s life). These were the thorniest issues not only in the process of negotiations, but also in the 2nd Summit between the two sides.

Second, President Donald Trump’s approach, which “goes from above to below” is thought to start exposing several shortcomings as the Meeting in Hanoi was much more practical than the first one in Singapore. Unlike other leaders in the world and the international practices, Donald Trump always takes his own approach; he often comes to a decision from above to below. He wanted to directly negotiate with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un and make decisions by himself instead of coming to Hanoi and signing the documents prepared in advance by his inferiors. Thus, according to the information provided by America at the press conference in the afternoon of February 28th, 2019 in Hanoi, during the 1+1 meeting plus, after the US delegation gave the North Korean delegation a document which had been prepared in advance on the US approach to the issue of denuclearization, US President Donald Trump directly asked North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un to dismantle several other nuclear centres (excluding Jongbyon) which America believed North Korea was secretly developing in order to ask for the lifting of the US sanctions. According to experts, North Korea was not ready for this, and it was the crucial reason why the Summit did not meet the expectations. Moreover, unlike the first Meeting in Singapore which was purely of symbolic significance, at the 2nd one, the two sides discussed the core issues related to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Thus, it was very hard to achieve the positive results.

Third, there was a possibility that the congressional testimony of Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, which was coincident with the Summit, partly impacted the US President’s personal decisions. That the United States House of Representatives held the hearing revealed the complexity of the US politics. Allegations against President Donald Trump have accumulated, including his personal life, financial affairs, and Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, which have caused a lot of disadvantages for the US President.

Nevertheless, the 2nd Trump-Kim Summit is thought to be an encouraging step forward and mark an important milestone in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is clarified in the two following points.

First, the two sides more understood each other, especially at the highest level and considerably narrowed the differences in the settlement of the key issues on the denuclearization. As for North Korea, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated: “in this sense, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be defined as completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea before it can eliminate our nuclear deterrent”. However, in fact, North Korea was ready to completely dismantle its Jongbyon nuclear centre and report its plutonium and uranium facilities as well; make a written commitment to ending its nuclear and missile tests forever; allow the restricted inspection of its nuclear site and put the issue of intercontinental ballistic missile on the negotiating table. Meanwhile, America gave North Korea a document on their approach to the denuclearization and a detailed road map. Moreover, America was only ready for the resumption of humanitarian aid instead of North Korea’s request for the lifted sanctions. Besides, other issues, such as the establishment of a liaison office and the suspension of US-South Korea joint exercises made certain progress.

Second, in spite of the fact that the Meeting could not make a deal, the two sides demonstrated their restraint, appreciated each other’s standpoint, and left the possibility of meeting each other soon open. Right after the end of the 2nd Summit, during his working visit to the Philippines, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. would be back to negotiations with North Korea soon. America and South Korea continue to suspend large-scale military exercises in the upcoming time to support diplomatic activities with North Korea. Although North Korea has recently threatened to stop negotiations with America on its nuclear program, in fact, the two sides hope to maintain dialogues and settle all issues by peaceful means and negotiations.

According to experts, it is now too early to give a sufficient assessment of the impacts made by the 2nd US-North Korea Summit on the region’s security and political situation. However, it is rather clear to see that the Meeting was a development for the relevant sides to step up practical measures for the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, which would have a long-term impact on peace and stability in the region and the world. All relevant major powers, such China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea will have to adjust their action in line with the Meeting’s results.

It is thought that America and North Korea should continue the negotiations and that the 2nd Summit between the two countries has been an important landmark in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and helped narrow the gap between relevant sides, alleviate tenseness, facilitate dialogues, and actively maintain peace, stability, and cooperation in the region and the world.

Tran Viet Thai, PhD, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

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