Are the Stakes Higher Now for the U.S.–North Korea Summit?

By Lisa Collins — 

Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.

On May 10, President Donald Trump announced that a bilateral summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be held in Singapore on June 12, 2018. This announcement was made only hours after the highly anticipated return of three U.S. detainees who had been held in North Korea for over a year. The three Americans were brought home by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a secret trip to Pyongyang this week.

In remarks to the press after the return of the American citizens to U.S. soil, President Trump indicated that he was looking forward to the upcoming U.S.–North Korea meeting and stated that “[Kim Jong-un] did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world.” Trump also proclaimed that “[m]y proudest achievement will be—this is part of it—but will be when we denuclearize that entire [Korean] peninsula.”

This week has seen a whirlwind of diplomatic activity occurring in and around the Korean peninsula. In addition to meeting with Secretary of State Pompeo in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un also met for the second time in less than 40 days with Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 7 and 8. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and Chinese premier Li Keqiang also held a trilateral meeting in Tokyo on May 9.

In the midst of all this diplomatic activity, there are many critical questions to be asked.

Q1: Why is the Trump-Kim summit taking place in Singapore?

A1: Singapore was likely chosen as a location for this summit because it is a neutral third-party country that has relatively good relations with both the United States and North Korea. The country also has extensive experience hosting world leaders at large international events such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, so there would be less security concerns for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. North Korean leaders also have some ties with Singapore and feel relatively safe there. Additionally, Singapore is a vibrant, modern city that could provide memorable optics for an event that is certain to draw the attention of the entire world. Other world leaders such as Xi Jinping are reportedly even considering a visit to the country around the time of the U.S.-DPRK summit.

Logistics are always a large part of summit planning, and this time will be no different. For North Korea, the fact that Singapore is easily accessible by plane from Pyongyang would mean that Kim Jong-un would not need to stop over in another country on a long flight and would not need to request travel assistance that might trigger questions about UN sanctions enforcement. This might have been a concern if the summit were held in a neutral European country such as Sweden or Switzerland. For the United States, Singapore has good, modern infrastructure, which is necessary from a security and communications standpoint for presidential travel. Mongolia, for example, another venue considered for the summit, would have been suboptimal in these respects.

Singapore is also not a party to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute. This is important because a UN Commission of Inquiry report in 2014 found that crimes against humanity were being perpetrated by Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime at the highest levels and recommended that the UN Security Council refer the case to the International Criminal Court. The North Korean leader would want to avoid any locations that might draw attention to the human rights violations being perpetrated in his country. The United States should certainly continue to raise the important issue of human rights in North Korea, but it is unclear whether Trump will make that issue a focus of the summit’s agenda.

Q2: Have the stakes been raised for the U.S.–North Korean summit?

A2: Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un both appear to be personally invested in the negotiations for the summit. President Trump’s tweets and statements to the press about the meeting indicate that he is building up high expectations for this summit. The North Korean leader has also taken a risk by announcing to his people through state media that there will be a meeting with the U.S. president. While previously silent on this issue, the North Korean state media reported news of the summit when they announced Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this week.

Experts have debated the extent to which this U.S.–North Korean summit presents both an opportunity and a tremendous risk for both sides. If discussions go well, that could lead to a longer process of confidence-building measures and denuclearization that could allow the United States to consider a peace treaty in the future. However, if things go badly, we could see a return to talk about military strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities.

The release of U.S. detainees in advance of the summit certainly eliminates one issue that could have caused ill will between the two sides and been an obstacle in the negotiations. But unfortunately, it does not address any of the larger problems that will be at the heart of the discussions between Trump and Kim. South Koreans have vaguely reported that North Korea would agree to some “sequenced steps” toward denuclearization, but there are no details about what that actually means in practice.

Beyond the question of Kim Jong-un’s intent, there is the question of whether Kim is capable of following through in a process that would lead to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of his nuclear weapons program. This is the policy position that the Trump administration is pushing in advance of the summit. Whether the North Koreans can agree to this or whether the positions of the two sides can be narrowed during the negotiations is an open question.

Nuclear weapons experts report that CVID can only happen if there is intrusive verification by the United States and the international community in a long process, and that would involve inspections at every step along the way. The process would also have to start with the North Koreans handing over a complete list of verifiable nuclear weapons, materials, technology, facilities, and scientists/experts that have been a part of the program. This would be an enormous task under any circumstances, let alone under the present conditions where Kim Jong-un faces a daunting amount of external and internal pressure for change.

Q3: What role will Japan and China play in the summitry?

A3: Japan and China are both countries with substantial vested interests in what happens at the U.S.–North Korea summit. For this reason, both Japan and China will continue to assert some influence in the discussions surrounding the Trump-Kim meeting. The United States will continue to consult and coordinate with its allies, South Korea and Japan, in advance of the meeting, and China is likely to do the same with North Korea. We can also anticipate that there will be significant exchanges between the United States and China in the lead-up to the summit.

Q4: What will be accomplished at the summit?

A4: It is still too early to tell what will be accomplished in this first meeting between Trump and Kim. Optimists will argue that Kim Jong-un is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons and reforming his economy to catalyze development in the future. Skeptics will argue that Kim Jong-un cannot give up his nuclear weapons without challenging his own power base and the future long-term survivability of his country. Distrust of the intentions and capabilities of the North Korean leader run deep and may not be easily surmountable even if momentum in the negotiations process continues.

We will need to watch carefully and examine what Trump and Kim do in the coming weeks to have a better idea of what the summit outcome will be.

Ms. Lisa Collins is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @lisadalim. This piece first appeared as a CSIS Critical Questions here. Listen to our recent CogitAsia podcast on Korean Summitry featuring Lisa and Dr. Sue Mi Terry of the Korea Chair here.

Lisa Collins

Lisa Collins

Lisa Collins is a fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

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