Historic breakthrough or empty promises?

Pyongyang wants talks to be vague and drawn out but the US is pushing for "verifiable and irreversible" action

Published Mon, Feb 25, 2019 · 09:50 PM


COULD the United States and North Korea reach a historic accord or could it all fall to pieces?

As US President Donald Trump prepares for a historic second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, observers see a wide array of possible outcomes.

Here are some scenarios that could emerge from the two-day summit, which opens on Wednesday in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi:

Complete breakdown unlikely

The US pointman on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, and his counterpart Kim Hyok Chol are holding working-level talks in Hanoi to lay the groundwork for the leaders.

A complete collapse of the summit seems "unlikely because Trump and Kim are so invested in the meeting", said Viping Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But what comes out of the talks is another story. The two leaders' first summit in Singapore last June ended in a statement that agreed on "complete denuclearisation" - which Pyongyang defines broadly as an end to nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

The US says it is seeking the "verifiable and irreversible" denuclearisation of North Korea - a formulation Pyongyang is sure to resist.

Repeat of Singapore a defeat for Trump

A simple repeat of the Singapore declaration would be widely seen in the US as a defeat for Mr Trump.

"What would be a failure is another vague statement about intentions with very little concrete action that each side is committed to take," said Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mr Narang said that a repeat of Singapore would be the favoured outcome for North Korea, which would face no fresh constraints.

"There's a paradox: for the summit to be useful for the North Koreans, the working-level meetings need to be as vague and drawn-out as possible," he said.

"But for the summit to be useful for the US, the working-level meetings have to deliver something concrete."

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if nothing major emerges by the US summer, hawks around Mr Trump such as his national security adviser, John Bolton, could increasingly press to be done with talks and focus on pressure.

Mr Trump yields ground

No matter how much Mr Trump's team prepares him, this most untraditional of US presidents could reject expert advice and, as is he is wont to do, go with his gut.

Such a scenario would be seen as a catastrophe by most of the Washington establishment, which has spent decades trying to figure out North Korea.

"A failure would be that the US gives more than it receives", said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Denmark voiced fear that Mr Trump could declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War - which closed only with an armistice - without significant action from Pyongyang.

"Declaring an end to the war is a significant concession and should not be done lightly," he said, fearing an effect on the dynamics between the two Koreas.

One major fear for South Korea and Japan is that Mr Trump reaches a deal that only restricts intercontinental missiles that could hit the US, while not taking up shorter-range weapons that could threaten them.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly spoken of the North Korea summit as a way to protect Americans, raising worries in the region.

US hopes for verifiable declunearisation

The best result for the US would be a step-by-step, verifiable agreement in which the North Koreans commit to ending their nuclear programme beyond verbal promises.

North Korean concessions over which the US could cry victory include the suspension of all the regime's missile and nuclear sites and the destruction of some of them, Denmark said.

For Mr Narang, the destruction of the Yongbyon complex - North Korea's main nuclear centre - would mark an important step.

But the key for Washington would be inspections by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency to verify North Korea is getting rid of its nuclear weapons.

In return, Washington could open a liaison office in Pyongyang - a step towards full diplomatic relations - or declare an end to the war.

Mr Kim's most urgent goal is the lifting of international sanctions that have held back his hopes of economic development.

The US has so far insisted that it will not provide aid until denuclearisation. But Mr Biegun recently hinted at early steps, saying: "We didn't say we won't do anything until you do everything." AFP


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