President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in less than three weeks, yet the biggest question hanging over the leaders’ second summit is why they’re even having it. Since their historic face-to-face meeting in Singapore eight months ago, North Korea has made little progress towards giving up its nuclear weapons and continues to do what it can to evade sanctions. The top US negotiator with Kim’s regime acknowledges that the two sides still don’t agree on what denuclearization might look like
or what the US might offer to satisfy him.
Those gaps underscore just how far apart the two sides remain as the clock ticks towards Trump’s second summit with Kim, set for Hanoi on February 27 and 28. The differences have led many of Trump’s critics to argue that the second summit will look a lot like the first, which produced a vague set of principles but little
“Although it would be great if the two sides made progress on slowing North Korea’s nuclear program at the summit, the most likely outcome is rinse and repeat,” said Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Trump’s approach to the summit underscores the top-down style that’s become one of his hallmarks, upending traditional diplomacy that depends on aides to hammer out agreements for leaders to drag over the finish line.
Trump’s supporters say the US has already achieved a lot — including a suspension of missile tests and the return of US soldiers’ remains — and sacrificed little. Hope for a lasting deal, they argue, is higher than it’s been in years. Trump said as much during his State of the Union address last week:
“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said as he announced the Vietnam summit. US officials also point out that North Korea is no longer detaining any Americans —and recently released one rather than keep him as a bargaining chip.
North Korea, for its part, can boast that it got Trump to do something: suspend major military drills with South Korea. Before the Singapore summit, Trump agreed to put off annual exercises involving tens of thousands of troops against the advice of his top advisers and allies Japan and South Korea.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving for the North Koreans,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “We have had no progress on denuclearization. In fact they continue to nuclearize.”
The Singapore meeting, and the plans to hold another summit, are in themselves victories for North Korea. After years of criticism over its human rights record and its development of nuclear weapons, Kim has gained global legitimacy with his outreach to Trump and the South Korean government.
Trump continues to lavish praise on Kim, exchanging warm letters and calling him a leader who can make his country “a great Economic Powerhouse” if he gives up his nuclear arsenal. “He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is,” the president said in a tweet.
Kim may seek to exploit Trump’s apparent willingness to bend to the arguments of foreign leaders over his own advisers. That was demonstrated during Trump’s news conference in Helsinki last year with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when the American president appeared to give Russian denials of meddling in the 2016 election more credibility than his own intelligence community’s assessments. Kim’s strategy is to just get Trump in a room,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.