The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looms around the corner, and speculation about what will come out of Hanoi is rampant. Despite early indications that matters of substance are being worked out, the haphazard and last-minute nature of the planning process has critics crawling out of the woodwork, widely anticipating more spectacle than substance.
While certainly this is not a normal diplomatic process, those who have experience dealing with North Koreans are generally more optimistic, knowing that traditionally when Pyongyang decides it is ready to deal, moves are made quickly.
Additionally, several factors for success are in place now that did not exist ahead of the Singapore Summit, including: 1) a relationship between the main actors that has been tried and tested over seven months; 2) a dedicated team in place on both sides to work out the details and manage expectations; 3) a mutual understanding that a substantive outcome is necessary and early indications that specific measures have been offered up; and 4) two leaders who both want and need a political win to help with their domestic standing.
Some kind of deal is likely in Hanoi, though probably not a comprehensive roadmap to achieving full peace, denuclearization, and normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.
Some kind of deal is likely in Hanoi, though probably not a comprehensive roadmap to achieving full peace, denuclearization, and normalization of relations between the US and North Korea. What is more likely is at least a work plan that lays out specific details of what will be addressed in the first phase of the process and a commitment to keep negotiating the overall agenda set in Singapore. But the implications of what comes out of Hanoi are more than just whether or not we can get a “good deal.” Rather, the Hanoi Summit will impact the future of US-DPRK relations for years to come.
PROOF OF CONCEPT
For starters, a second summit serves as a proof of concept to the unconventional approach Trump has taken toward North Korea. The first meeting in Singapore was largely a big experiment—Trump trying an approach toward North Korea that had never been attempted by a US president, based on early signs of progress on the inter-Korean front. This summit-driven process, where the leaders agree to a set agenda and hand down to the working level negotiators to figure out the implementation, has been effective on the inter-Korean front and aligns well with North Korean decision-making processes. But, the upside-down nature of this process has been fiercely criticized from Washington — both inside and outside the administration.
While the first summit was the great experiment, this second summit serves as a proof of concept. A substantive outcome will provide evidence that this summit-driven, phased approach can bring about practical results and will make the case for continuing this type of diplomacy. There is ample evidence from the inter-Korean process that this type of diplomacy can work and can bring about quick results while fostering a trust-building process. A repeat of Singapore, where the two sides emerge with only a statement of political aspirations, will signal it is not an effective approach for US-DPRK relations.
THE FIRST TEST
Additionally, this summit will provide proof of political will: a substantive outcome will demonstrate that both sides actually want to make good on the agenda set in Singapore and that the joint statement was more than words on paper. It will start to deflate the argument that the North Koreans are just buying time and aren’t serious about starting down a path toward denuclearization. However, if the summit outcome lacks substance, it signals that whatever political will there may be, it is not strong enough for the two parties to even agree to a starting point.
Assuming that some level of substance comes out of the Hanoi Summit, it will then provide the first real test of each side’s ability to implement whatever they put on paper. And since both sides have a high level of skepticism of each other in this regard, early wins on implementation will help build trust and further justify continuing down this road together. Early delays or complications in implementation, however, such as opposition from a frustrated US Congress, can derail diplomatic efforts and diminish the already thin trust that is forming.
More importantly though, the outcome of the Hanoi Summit will likely impact how the next administration shapes its North Korea policy. Candidates for the 2020 Presidential election are already emerging and starting to craft their campaign platforms. Success at Hanoi, even for those who will build campaigns around anti-Trump sentiments, will likely spur more moderate stances on North Korea. Candidates will not want to be seen as anti-peace on the Korean Peninsula, or willing to blow up an agreement and working process simply out of spite, as Trump did when he came to office. They may reserve judgment on what they think their North Korea policy should be or give themselves space in case things develop in a positive direction.
But failures at Hanoi, perceptions of a weak outcome at Hanoi, or early failures in implementation will lead candidates to very quickly draft anti-Trumpian North Korea policies. They will be quick to attack the approach as having empowered Kim Jong Un’s regime and diminishing US leverage against not only North Korea, but future states who may choose a similar path. Similarly, signing a deal at Hanoi that, due to lack of coordination among relevant domestic stakeholders, cannot be implemented is likely to set US-DPRK relations on a very rocky path well beyond a Trump administration.
The stakes for this second US-DPRK summit are enormously high. Can the US and North Korea, after seven months to negotiate, agree to a starting point for a process that brings about peace, denuclearization, and normalization of relations? If not, this rare window of opportunity is likely to close, not just for the rest of Trump’s term in office, but for the next term or administration as well.