Trump agrees to second Kim summit as nuke deal remains elusive

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. (Bloomberg pic)

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump agreed to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the end of February. What the two leaders hope to achieve remains a mystery.

The summit announcement came after a 90-minute White House meeting Friday between Trump and Kim Yong Chol, one of the North Korean leader’s top aides. They discussed “denuclearisation and a second summit,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said talks between Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the visiting envoy were “good.”

Neither the administration nor the North Koreans offered much else about what they had agreed to and what would be gained from the planned summit. That only raised more questions because so little progress has been made toward the US’s ultimate goal — getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — since the first meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June.

Attention Saturday turned to Stockholm, with North Korea’s top envoy Choe Son Hui and her South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, both expected to be in town. The State Department said the US’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, would also attend an international conference in Sweden this weekend, but stopped short of saying whether he would secure his first meeting with Choe.

“I don’t think we have any concrete agreement,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who’s now at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. “Obviously Kim doesn’t want to meet with the bureaucrats who would make him agree to something, and I think Trump would welcome the distraction right now.”

The talks offered Trump a departure from the partisan stalemate over the US government shutdown and the continued drip of investigations into his Russia dealings. The president’s approval ratings have rarely been as high as they were in the aftermath of the first summit, when he declared North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat.

More than seven months later, North Korea has made no commitments to allow weapons inspections or dismantle its growing arsenal of warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The announcement suggested that the US was softening its refusal to relax sanctions against North Korea, since Kim had earlier this month threatened to walk away from talks if Trump didn’t compromise.

“The Trump-Kim Yong Chol meeting is arguably an indication that the US president has deprioritised the goal of complete denuclearization of North Korea for the sake of another mega-diplomatic event with Kim Jong Un, when there is no positive sign from Pyongyang that it will ever commit to a denuclearisation process,” said Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

The schedule leaves little time for negotiators to craft a detailed agreement, especially while the shutdown hampers bureaucratic work in Washington. Before Friday, the two sides had gone three months without a high-level meeting and key details — including where and when to hold the summit — must still be worked out.

The security concerns of both leaders make the choice of venue particularly sensitive. Speculation in recent weeks has centered on Vietnam — which has good relations with both sides — and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told Bloomberg News on Thursday that the Southeast Asian nation would be happy to host the meeting if chosen.

In the run-up to the first summit, the two sides spent weeks bickering over logistics and perceived political slights, with Trump at one point calling the meeting off. Their resulting agreement to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” was widely criticised for failing to commit Kim to a time table or disarmament plan.

“If the second US-North Korea summit turns out to be a repetition of the first talks, it will be of extremely limited value,” said Naoko Aoki, a nuclear security fellow at the RAND Corp. in Washington. “Grand statements are not enough, if denuclearisation is to make any progress. There needs to be working-level negotiations.”

Still, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected in 2017 on a pledge to make peace with North Korea, praised the announcement, with his spokesman describing the second summit as a likely “turning point.” The South Koreans are expecting Kim’s meeting with Trump to help set up an unprecedented Seoul visit by the North Korean leader.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said earlier this week that Seoul and Washington were discussing rewarding Kim’s denuclearization steps with “ corresponding measures,” including allowing some North-South economic projects to advance. Besides sanctions relief, North Korea is also seeking a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War and limits on US military activity on the peninsula.

The summit suggested that US officials were considering a more incremental agreement than their goal of the “final, fully verified denuclearisation of North Korea.” The US could, for example, seek the destruction of Kim’s Yongbyon nuclear-processing site, in exchange for sanctions relief. Other possible options could include a North Korean promise to stop producing new fuel for nuclear bombs.

Working-level talks between the two envoys “would be real progress,” said Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We give up swinging for the fences and just get on base,” Narang said. “The question is whether there’s enough time between now and February to hammer out the details.”