SEOUL — A second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may be the last best hope to jump-start the stalled “complete denuclearization” process, and a perfect opportunity would be at the session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month.
“No second meeting is planned,” says the White House, but Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat with the U.S. embassy here, believes “a meeting on the margins of the UNGA might be possible.” The American president, he says, “might be tempted to use that venue to put on a ‘show’ with his North Korean counterpart that would top what occurred in Singapore.”
Kim has not openly indicated he’s interested in seeing Trump again, or in attending the General Assembly, but there are signs he may be amenable to the idea. Importantly, his state media are very careful to refrain from criticizing President Trump personally, even as they level insults at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose job it is to press concrete demands.
When Pompeo last visited Pyongyang, he did so expecting Kim would see him. But no. Kim went off to a potato farm instead — a message, perhaps, that now he’s met with the president, he doesn’t need to bother with underlings. It’s also obvious the North Koreans think Trump himself is more malleable than his minions.
Meanwhile, North and South Korean emissaries are busy arranging a third summit between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, which could be the prelude to a new Kim-Trump get-together.
The timing of an encounter at the U.N. would be perfect, or at least perfectly ironic. Last year there, Trump declared it was “time for North Korea to realize that denuclearization is its only acceptable future,” warning that “rocket man” — yes, Kim Jong Un — was ”on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
That was then. Times have changed, but not as much as Trump once seemed to believe.
At Singapore in June Trump and Kim entered “a new era” in U.S.-North Korea relations. But since then, the more things changed the more they stayed the same. The longer North Korea stalls about getting rid of its nukes and missiles, and the facilities where it makes them, the more it seems the Trump-Kim summit was an exercise in semantics where nothing got done.
“It's going to take something significant to break the current impasse over denuclearization,” says Revere. “The essence of the problem is that the two leaders did not conclude a denuclearization agreement in Singapore, nor did they even manage to agree on what the word ‘denuclearization’ means. That was true on June 12th [the date of the Singapore summit], and it's true today.”
As North Korea makes clear it’s simply not going to do away with its nuclear program unless or until the U.S. accedes to its demand for a “declaration” formally ending the Korean War — a prelude to a peace treaty to replace the truce signed at Panmunjom in July 1953 — the need for Trump and Kim to meet again takes on real urgency.
The North’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, could not be more clear about the demand for a peace declaration — “the demand of our time,” it wrote recently — “the first process” on the way to guaranteeing security.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has said he too would like to see such a declaration by the end of the year, and Kim has invited him to Pyongyang, precisely, to talk it over in what would be their third inter-Korean summit.
At first glance — and let’s be honest, first glance is the extent to which Trump usually studies an issue — a peace declaration leading to a treaty might sound perfectly harmless. Who doesn’t want peace? Trump loves to portray himself as a statesman who will bring “World Peace,” and tweeted just that before the earlier summit on.June 12.
But both Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton complain the North has shown no serious signs of denuclearization since Singapore. In fact, some analysts believe that North Korea, with a peace declaration salted away, would be even less likely to begin to get rid of its nukes and missiles or the facilities for producing them.
“Once they get a peace treaty, the Americans’ hands will be tied up,” says Shim Jae-hoon, a long-time writer here for Yale Global and the old Far Eastern Economic Review. “It will be too late to do anything, and it’s going to be even more difficult for the U.S. to respond when they have nukes mounted on ICBMs.”
All the more reason for Trump and Kim to talk things over — this time with Trump asking for more guarantees of real denuclearization, which were sorely lacking in the brief statement that he and Kim signed in Singapore.
If there is a second meeting, Trump might remind Kim that he tweeted right after the first summit, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He might also recall he said, “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office.”
Trump may have mooted a summit in a letter to Kim that Pompeo handed over to North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Singapore. A White House spokesman, when asked about the letter, emailed, “We are not going to provide details of the President’s personal correspondence,” but the fact that Trump wrote Kim at all shows his anxiety to get around the impasse.
One immediate problem that the North Koreans would need to resolve would be what they’ve got by way of nukes and missiles and the facilities for making them. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate the North Koreans have produced anywhere from 20 to 80 warheads and are building a powerful second plutonium reactor at their main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. They also reportedly have facilities hidden away for making warheads with highly enriched uranium. So an inventory is crucial to any serious negotiations, and Pompeo has been demanding one at least since Singapore.
Ha Tae-keung, a national assembly member from the minor Right Future Party sees room for bargaining over the detailed inventory. “If North Korea reveals their nuclear program, then they can say the war is over,” Ha reasons. “They should at least do that if they want to denuclearize.”
Right after the Singapore summit, a legion of skeptics and cynics observed that Trump had gotten nothing to show for all the hype. The prevailing view, as Joseph Nye, a distinguished analyst with a long record of writing on the issue, noted last week at the Aspen Institute, is that Trump, for all his boastful posturing, “is in a long tradition of American presidents who have been taken to the cleaners.” The North Koreans, he noted, “have lied to us consistently for nearly 30 years.”
The earnest hope of the State Department has long been to see if Kim will agree to any kind of “timeline” on getting rid of the nukes and missiles the North has been producing for years and shutting down the facilities where they’re made. Kim’s right-hand man, Kim Yong Chol, who has seen Pompeo in New York, Washington and Pyongyang, has reportedly spurned his attempts to get anything like a date-by-date schedule for North Korea’s climb-down from the pinnacle it’s reached as the world’s ninth nuclear weapons power.
The U.S. and North Korea have not reached a real agreement since the Geneva framework at the height of a nuclear crisis in 1994. The North shut down its Yongbyon reactor, placed under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but the deal broke down in 2002 after the North was revealed to be developing a separate secret program for making nukes with highly enriched uranium. Work ceased on twin nuclear-energy power stations that were under construction, despite delays, with huge infusions of South Korean and Japanese funds. The U.S. stopped shipping heavy fuel oil to fulfill the North’s energy needs until the reactors went on line. North Korea soon resumed fabricating warheads at Yongbyon and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, setting the course that led to six nuclear tests from 2006 to last September.
In an atmosphere of renewed and pervasive mutual suspicion, Kim seems to want a grand bargain, if any bargain at all. Trump, who seems to think Kim is a man of honor and good faith, might go for the idea. Indeed, he obviously believed that’s what he accomplished miraculously in Singapore.
The North is still showing signs of looking for a way out, but with Trump alone as the pathway to peace. Bolton has portrayed his boss as “giving Kim Jong Un a master class in how to hold a door open for somebody.” Indeed, he said in all seriousness on Fox, “if the North Koreans can’t figure out how to walk through it, even the president’s fiercest critics will not be able to say it’s because he didn’t open it wide enough.” The problem would seem to be that Kim doesn’t want Bolton or Pompeo acting as ushers.
The Rodong Sinmun commentary said the current level of distrust is “abnormal,” as if suddenly all the goodwill built up at Singapore, which certainly would be a new normal, had fallen apart and now must be put back together.
Trump, in his letter to Kim, may also have suggested Pompeo go back to Pyongyang, which he has already visited three times, most recently amid accusations by North Korea that he has taken “gangster-like” positions in the talks.
Trump and Kim in a second summit, or on the margins of the UNGA, far from charming one another, might actually set back progress toward reconciliation.
“It is not unusual or surprising for talks to be stalled as parties jockey for position,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. diplomat now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They are still very much in the initial preparatory stages. The U.S. should not relax in pushing for a clear definition of denuclearization and the required verification.”
There may be no second summit, at least not next month, but sooner or later one seems likely. What if one-on-one they came to another friendly deal in which Trump made concessions similar to his agreement at the June summit to cancel joint military exercises with the South Koreans?
The fantasy for the North Koreans, the nightmare for the American negotiators, would be if Trump, alone again with Kim, were to tell him, sure, let’s sign off on a “peace declaration” ending the Korean War, and let’s forget about sanctions, too.
“Having given away much of the store in Singapore, Trump might be inclined to give away the rest of it at a second summit,” says Fitzpatrick. “It is much better to keep the ball in Pompeo’s hand.” One way “to make a breakthrough,” he suggests, would be for the U.S. to go along with North Korea’s demand for a declaration formally ending the Korean War provided the North did what it has so far failed to do – release “details of its fissile material and missile production to date and agreeing on a dismantlement and verification plan.”
However, Shim Jae-hoon believes another Trump-Kim summit can only work for North Korea.
“By allowing Kim to breezily pass by the Singapore summit, the Trump administration has fallen into the trap of having to repeat meetings with Kim,” he says. After demanding a "peace treaty" or "peace regime," the North’s “next step is to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops since they have no business being in a country under a formal peace treaty.” And so on, as Shim puts it, “ad infinitum.“
For now, U.S. policymakers appear uncertain what to do. While Pompeo was in Singapore, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, who retired from the Navy as the admiral in charge of the U.S. Pacific command, had a message for Korean journalists.
"One of the things that hasn't happened is the demonstrable moves toward denuclearization before we can entertain something like the end-of-war declaration," he said. "We need to see the move, and I haven't seen that yet.”
Those remarks caused a tempest in diplomatic tea cups. Neither Pompeo nor Bolton knew Harris was talking to the media. At this juncture, U.S. policy on North Korea remains in flux while the White House and the State Department puzzle over whatever Trump will do next to stay on the good side of his new friend in Pyongyang.
Watch this space.