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The Peninsula

What to Look for at the Trump-Kim Summit

Published June 11, 2018
Category: North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

For the first time a sitting U.S. president will meet with the leader of North Korea when Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un meet in Singapore on June 12. While President Trump has recently described the meeting as the beginning of a process and a meet and greet, there are seven issues that will give us a good idea of how the summit went and where the process is going.

The Optics Will Matter

Both Trump and Kim revel in presentation. After spending a year discussing “fire and fury” and missile strikes on Guam both will want to present an image of success. In the case of Trump, normally there would be an increased incentive to present success in the aftermath of a G7 summit where the optics were as bad as they can potentially be for a U.S. president. However, optics also depend on the audience, and for Trump’s audience walking away to demonstrate American toughness could be seen as a success rather than working towards an actual success.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un seems to have mastered the art of managing the international stage. He used a simple spontaneous gesture in his first meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to help break the ice by offering to step with Moon back into North Korea briefly to offer Moon his first trip to North Korea, and their bridge walk proved successful enough that it was copied for his second meeting with Xi Jinping. One thing to look for will be does Kim try to use a little English or self-deprecating humor to disarm Trump?

The use of optics may be no stronger than if there is a statement about ending the Korean War. Both leaders want to be the historic figures that brought the Korean War to end.

Unless the summit ends in failure, look for both sides to use the imagery of a historic moment to spin a narrative, but also pay attention to how the two leaders interact with each other, what images they try to present, and how they define their talks – in Trump’s case on Twitter afterwards – for how they want to the summit to be defined.

The Substance Will Matter More

If the optics will matter for presentation, the substance will tell you how the process is going. There is no expectation of every issues being settled and every detail being agreed, but the specifics will matter if the process is going to work.

When the inter-Korean summit concluded it laid out some precise objectives and timelines – specifically a timeline for the conclusion of talks on a peace treaty. Will any document give a clear definition of what denuclearization means or maintain a vague aspiration for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula? Will there be specific actions and timelines announced? The more specific the details and the timelines involved, the more substantive agreement there likely is between the United States and North Korea.

What Was Said About Peace and Security?

Whether it is a political declaration ending the Korean War, an agreement to negotiate a treaty ending the war, or an announcement on the security guarantees that the United States will provide North Korea, this is the part of the summit that will most interest North Korea.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that the United States would offer security assurances unlike those that it has offered in the past and in prior Congressional testimony had suggested that the administration wanted Congress to give its approval to any deal, unlike in the case of Iran. If the United States offered a treaty with North Korea, getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote for a treaty with North Korea without a strong deal on denuclearization from Pyongyang could be too high a bar to reach for the administration. The shape of the security assurance, therefore, could be critical to the processes ability to be successful.

One other key issue to watch on this front isn’t necessarily whether there is any announcement on ending the Korea War but, rather if President Trump makes any comments on the possibility of removing any U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

What Else Was on the Agenda?

When the United States and North Korea release their joint statement one area to watch is whether there are any issues discussed by the two leaders other than the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, as well as discussions of ending the Korean War. President Trump has promised Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo that he will raise the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Will there be discussion of other human rights concerns related to North Korea? Will the two leaders discuss North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, its cyber activities, or economic reforms in North Korea?

What Happens to Sanctions?

The United States position has been that sanctions will remain in place until after the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program has been completed. However, it seems unlikely that North Korea will agree to a phased dismantlement of its weapons programs without some sanctions relief.

North Korea may not be looking for significant sanctions relief as it will likely want to control the reopening of the economy and a rapid lifting of sanctions could be destabilizing to the regime, but it will push for some relief to take the current level of pressure off.

While the administration has indicated that it will not take the pressure off, it will be important to want for any U.S. agreement to lift some of the sanctions or suggestions that it might do so prior to the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs.

What Is Said in North Korea?

Some issues we’ll only know after the summit, but will provide insight into the process. On Kim Jong-un’s recent flight to Singapore, the tightly controlled North Korean state media made no attempt to hide the fact the Kim traveled to Singapore on a Chinese jet. Will North Korea be as forthcoming about the results of the summit, or will it hold details back? If there is an agreement on denuclearization and North Korea releases the same information to its public that would be a positive sign going forward.

How Do Other Countries Treat North Korea Afterwards?

On the international stage, the U.S.-North Korea summit has been a boon for Kim Jong-un. After years of isolation he has already met with Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping twice. Once he has met with Trump, will other countries begin to treat North Korea as a more normal country? We have already seen suggestions that Chinese sanctions are beginning to loosen, will the summit and the prospect of peace unravel much of what remains of the sanctions regime and relieve pressure regardless of whether the U.S. administration is willing to engage in early sanctions relief or not. While we will not know the answers to these questions right away, they could provide the answer to whether North Korea abandons its nuclear program in the end or not.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Brian Evans photosteram on flickr Creative Commons.

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