North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves upon arrival by train in Dong Dang in Vietnamese border town Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves upon arrival by train in Dong Dang in Vietnamese border town Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019 ap photo/minh huang

What to Watch as Trump-Kim II Gets Underway

Let's review how we got here — and why some observers say the stakes are even higher this time around.

As Trump prepares to meet Kim Jong Un for the second time in Hanoi, many of the same questions that hovered over the first summit remain on the table. Here’s a roundup of our coverage and commentary on the last time Trump and Kim met, and what to expect this time around:

Let’s start last March.

“The good news is that the Trump administration has adopted an approach toward North Korea that goes beyond trading insults, or missiles. They are going to talk,” wrote Mark Bowden. “The bad news? Donald Trump intends to do it himself.” (A Trump-Kim Summit: ‘Why the Hell Not?’)

Trump’s announcement that he meet with Kim was met with skepticism yet a hint of cautious optimism that this could be a fresh opportunity to bring issues to the fore that had previously been swept aside by hardline posturing and rhetoric.

Uri Friedman wrote: “The latest diplomatic opening offers a chance to better understand the enigmatic Kim regime, curb its runaway nuclear program, and address direct threats to the United States that haven’t been central to past rounds of negotiations, such as the North’s proliferation of nuclear materials to other states and non-state actors and its further development of long-range missiles.” (What’s There to Talk About With North Korea?)

About denuclearization…

The summit hinged on the idea that Trump’s North Korea strategy up to that point was working.  In April, Kim had promised South Korean President Moon Jae In to limit testing and launches, and to stop spreading nuclear technology. But Ankit Panda and Adam Mount wrote that all that sweet-talking needed to be taken with a grain of salt: “The commitment itself is hardly worth the paper it is printed on...The United States cannot accept these measures as a victory—they’re a starting point for forging a verifiable cap on Pyongyang’s arsenal.” (North Korea Is Not De-Nuclearizing)

So how did the first Trump-Kim Summit go?

Not well, Friedman wrote. The most tangible results were:

  • Agreement to follow up talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
  • Commitment to returning the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War
  • “Chummier” bilateral relations, with ongoing dialogue instead of threatening war

Absent, of course, was a commitment to actual denuclearization. (Trump Got Nearly Nothing From Kim Jong Un and Here’s What Trump Actually Achieved With North Korea)

But according to Trump’s Twitter, it was mission accomplished. Friedman wrote, “North Korea remains very much on the cusp of being capable of striking the U.S. with long-range nuclear missiles, if it has not already reached this milestone. And it has taken no steps to reverse this basic fact. Does Trump not know this?” (Donald Trump Actually Seems to Believe He Denuclearized North Korea)

(Friedman talked about all of this as it happened on our Defense One Radio podcast. Listen here.)

A month later, Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called these follow-up conversations with his North Korean counterparts “productive”; they called them “regrettable.” Kathy Gilsinan noted a sort of backsliding in diplomatic goals that seemed to be cemented by this meeting: “If anything, the shifts toward common ground are now appearing to come from the American side, with State Department statements in recent days seeming to back off the long-standing demand for North Korea’s ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament’  in favor of ‘fully verified, final denuclearization.’” (America and North Korea Are Having Two Different Conversations)

Friedman interviewed Cheon Seong Whun, a security adviser in the conservative administration of former South Korean President Park Geun Hye, about how the U.S.’s relationship with South Korea figured into denuclearization progress with North Korea. Park advocated for “pressuring, deterring, and defending against a nuclear-armed North Korea if Kim proves unserious about giving up his nuclear weapons” in the wake of Pompeo’s visit, which showed the need for a “moment of truth” with North Korea. (America’s Moment of Truth With North Korea Is Coming)

Meanwhile, in the intelligence community...

Reports emerged in July and August that cast doubt that North Korea was actually denuclearizing in the American sense. On the contrary, Pyongyang appeared to be scaling up its missile operations and seeking ways to conceal its progress from the U.S. Friedman examined these reports’ credibility, and cautioned that they could perhaps be read in an opposite, more optimistic way. (Two Ways to Read the Newest Intelligence on North Korea)

Later that month, a second meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart was abruptly canceled due to what Trump called insufficient progress on denuclearization. (Donald Trump Sorrowfully Cancels Another North Korea Meeting)

But that quickly thawed, and Pompeo met with North Koreans again in October.

Pompeo again described the conversations as “productive” and called for another Trump-Kim summit, ASAP. Still murky: How much progress North Korea had made towards denuclearization, and further, how the U.S. would know if it were occuring. Eric M. Brewer and Jung H. Pak demystified this in an op-ed, which ultimately argued: “The steps North Korea has taken to date, which include reportedly destroying a nuclear-weapons test site and dismantling a missile-test facility, are either reversible or have little to no technical impact, given the advanced state of its nuclear and missile programs. In essence, they are low-to-no-cost moves for Pyongyang.” (Is North Korea Denuclearizing? Here’s How We’ll Tell)

Which brings us to another Trump-Kim summit.

David Maxwell writes that the stakes are even higher this time around; a misstep could unravel the recently tense U.S.-South Korea alliance. “The summit could result in a breakthrough that would give Trump the biggest foreign-policy win of his presidency — or it could mark the beginning of a strategic disaster for the United States and South Korea.” (A Strategic Disaster Looms at the 2nd Trump-Kim Summit)

Maxwell says there are three issues to watch:

  • South Korea’s monetary support for the U.S. troops stationed there
  • Pompeo’s protect-the-homeland priority recasting the North Korea threat
  • Trump’s general distaste for allies

Stay tuned!