In just a few days, President Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the second time in Hanoi. The meeting follows months of stalled negotiations after both sides signed a joint statement in Singapore agreeing to work toward a “new U.S.-North Korea relationship” and the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
In South Korea, expectations range from cautious optimism to outright skepticism — largely divided along liberal and conservative fault lines — that this next summit will lead to progress. According to a December 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, slightly more than half of South Koreans lack confidence in President Moon Jae-in or Trump’s ability to negotiate with North Korea, while a little less than half are at least somewhat confident. Another recent poll found 46 percent of South Koreans believe Pyongyang will uphold its commitments on denuclearization — while 44 percent doubt it will do so.
The Japanese government is deeply concerned that Washington and Pyongyang will strike a less than comprehensive deal — one that narrowly addresses North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, but leaves Japan and the rest of the region vulnerable to North Korea’s formidable arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles. Japanese citizens have also historically expressed the most anxiety about the North Korean nuclear threat, compared to their neighbors. One poll conducted weeks after the Singapore summit found 83 percent of Japanese citizens still doubted North Korea would ever denuclearize.
These are the key issues U.S. allies will be watching closely this week.
1. Any progress on denuclearization?
Most experts — including the U.S. intelligence community — believe Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons and this summit, like the last one, is unlikely to produce a robust agreement on the timing, scope or process.
Despite such assessments, the Moon administration has been working to sustain momentum for diplomacy on these issues. South Korea’s president recently communicated to Trump that Seoul would be willing to accelerate inter-Korean development projects if that would encourage North Korea. The news outraged South Korean conservatives who believe Moon is being tricked into “footing North Korea’s bill” before securing significant commitments from Pyongyang.
South Korean and Japanese critics raise another concern: that striking a “small deal” at Hanoi, which simply freezes North Korea’s nuclear program while leaving an open-ended timeline for complete denuclearization, would legitimize Pyongyang’s status as a de facto nuclear power.
If Washington were to leave its allies vulnerable to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, they would question U.S. credibility as a regional security provider and supporter of global nonproliferation norms. In addition, both Japan and South Korea will probably see a stronger push from those who want their countries to develop their own nuclear capabilities. While such demands are unlikely to turn into actual policy anytime soon, the return of a conservative government in Seoul, for instance, could change the situation.
2. What ‘corresponding measures’ will the United States take?
Pyongyang has consistently demanded Washington must take “corresponding measures” in return for any steps toward denuclearization. But anything more than a few simple measures — establishing liaison offices, say, or offering humanitarian aid — could affect the future operation of U.S. alliances in the region.
Among his various demands, Kim has called for the elimination of all “joint military exercises with foreign forces” and foreign “war equipment including strategic assets” from the Korean Peninsula. The United States cannot fully meet such requests without undermining the warfighting readiness of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, recently testified that alliance readiness is essential, as North Korea’s military capabilities remain unchanged. Furthermore, any such concessions could have an impact on the abilities of the United States and its allies to deter destabilizing behavior by other states in the broader East Asian region.
Another big unknown is whether Trump and Kim will sign an end-of-war declaration, a move that both Pyongyang and Seoul have enthusiastically pushed. But even a simple declaration that hostilities have ended will inevitably open up questions about the purpose of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the role of U.S. troops and assets on the Korean Peninsula. This type of statement could also be used by those who favor rolling back the alliance — Pyongyang, Beijing and certain constituencies inside South Korea — to advance their cause.
If such a declaration comes before significant discussions and a shared understanding between Washington and Seoul on what the redefined U.S.-South Korean alliance would look like, it could hurt alliance management and cohesion. Other U.S. allies would probably interpret this lack of coordination as another sign of Washington’s increasing unreliability as a partner.
3. Is there movement toward a ‘peace regime’ on the Korean Peninsula?
Last June, Washington and Pyongyang committed in writing to build a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula. While neither side has clearly defined the components of a peace regime, it would probably include: an official peace treaty to legally end the Korean War; principles for diplomatic, economic and military exchanges between North Korea and the United States, and a framework for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula that includes security guarantees for North and South Korea and perhaps a modified role or even the exit of U.S. troops.
Such measures would seriously change the regional security environment. As a result, any indications at the summit of how Washington and Pyongyang intend to proceed will be intensely scrutinized by all countries in the region. If the United States signals it intends to make a priority of consulting and coordinating with its allies, such a gesture would reassure its partners and strengthen the alliance network’s collective bargaining position in what is likely to be an extensive multilateral negotiating process. Failure to coordinate on these issues will erode trust and endanger the long-term viability of U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia.
Patricia M. Kim is a senior policy analyst with the China Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of “China’s Quest for Influence in Northeast Asia: The Korean Peninsula, Japan and the East China Sea,” published recently in NBR’S Strategic Asia 2019.