Plans for second US-N. Korean summit met with both hope and fear
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 19, 2019
SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea has said it expects the next U.S.-North Korean summit to be a “turning point.” The question will be in which direction.
The White House announced Friday that the two leaders would meet again near the end of February. President Donald Trump said Saturday that the location has been chosen and would be disclosed later. Vietnam has been widely reported as the likely site.
“We have made a lot of progress as far as denuclearization is concerned and we’re talking about a lot of different things,” he said. “Things are going very well with North Korea.”
Here’s a look at what’s changed, what hasn’t and what needs to since Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during their first meeting on June 12 in Singapore.
The surge in diplomacy that began early last year when the North agreed to participate in the Winter Olympics has eased tensions on the divided peninsula. That’s a welcome change for Seoul after a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests in 2016-17 raised fears of a nuclear war.
Trump and Kim also traded threats and personal insults, with Trump warning at one point that he would “totally destroy” the North if forced to defend the United States and its allies.
Trump now says he and Kim “fell in love.” North Korea announced a testing moratorium on long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. It conducted an explosion that it said destroyed its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. Kim also said he was willing to dismantle the main Yongyon nuclear research facility if the United States “takes corresponding measures.”
While those moves have been welcomed, skeptics point out the North already has made great strides toward developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland. It is estimated to have 20 to 60 nuclear bombs already in its arsenal and test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles, including some that flew toward Japan, in 2017. Satellite images show the communist state is continuing to develop its capabilities.
A Pentagon report released last week warned the U.S. must remain vigilant. “While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat,” according to the Missile Defense Review report.
Room to maneuver
The U.S. and North Korea have sparred over the North’s nuclear aspirations for decades, but Trump and Kim have changed the rules by introducing a new model of top-down talks. Efforts to hold technical negotiations have faltered as the North rebuffed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, making it clear Kim only wants to deal with Trump.
The U.S. insists on maintaining “maximum pressure” until it sees “fully and verified denuclearization,” and it introduced new unilateral economic sanctions on the regime as recently as last month. North Korea angrily denounced those and wants a step-by-step approach to the talks, with rewards for steps already taken.
The White House has given no details about the talks, but Vice President Mike Pence appeared to loosen the conditios in November when he said North Korea would not have to turn over a detailed inventory of nuclear assets – which had been believed to be a key sticking point.
In his New Year’s Day address, Kim hinted at a possible cap on nuclear weapons production and promised not to use them first in a conflict or sell them to other countries – again – if the U.S. takes equivalent steps.
Pompeo didn’t rule out the possibility in an interview with Fox News earlier this month. He said he was seeking ways to “decrease the risk to the American people” posed by the North Koreans. That could be interpreted as meaning something less than the complete dismantling of the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Experts have suggested Trump may agree to a largely symbolic declaration formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which concluded with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. He also may announce a further suspension of annual wargames with longtime ally South Korea, as he did after the first summit. North Korea hates the drills, which it considers rehearsals for an invasion, and has long demanded they stop.
The next major joint military exercises, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are usually held in the spring, making them a potential bargaining chip.
The U.S. has some 28,500 servicemembers based in South Korea. Some have speculated that Trump may try to reduce that number, especially since Seoul and Washington failed to agree on a cost-sharing agreement by a Dec. 31 deadline.
The president has made clear since his campaign that he would like to remove troops to save money. Congress was so worried he may act on the threat that it moved to restrict the Pentagon’s ability to cut troop numbers in South Korea below 22,000 in the defense policy bill for this year.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has insisted the U.S. troop presence is an alliance matter and told reporters recently that Kim understands that U.S. Forces Korea “is not linked to the denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula.”
While it’s impossible to predict what would happen if the two unpredictable leaders meet again, North Korea observers agree that the worst-case scenario would be a return to the recent tensions that drove the peninsula to the brink of war.
Many worry the meeting will end up little more than a photo opportunity or a chance for Kim to wring more concessions from the U.S. while giving up little.
“The clock is ticking. One or two months from now will be a turning point. Demonstrating sincerity toward denuclearization is the only way for North Korea to go,” the South Korean newspaper Korea Joongang Daily wrote inan editorial titled “The Last Chance.”
Meanwhile, the former commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, summed up the dangers in an interview with PBS. “Without conversation, we go right back where we were in 2016 and ’17, with the great potential of miscalculation on one another’s actions,” he said.
“I would say we were close,” he added when asked about the potential for conflict.