President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will have their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27 and 28. Compared to their first summit, the news coverage is more muted and the expectations are lower.
This has more to do with the consensus that the first Trump-Kim summit resulted in no historical breakthrough and there has been little progress since then. So here are three things President Trump should do to make this second U.S.-Korea summit a success.
1. Avoid Overconfidence
When reporters asked him on February 20 about the upcoming summit, President Trump said he didn’t think North Korea was reluctant to denuclearize. He told reporters, “I don’t think they’re reluctant; I think they want to do something.” This level of overconfidence is dangerous. North Korea hasn’t done anything to deserve that.
While it’s true that Pyongyang hasn’t openly tested any nuclear weapons or missiles since the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year, it has made little progress toward “denuclearization.” Right after the Singapore summit, satellite images showed Pyongyang had made swift improvements to the infrastructure at its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and increased its production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. South Korea’s military also gathered new evidence that suggests Pyongyang is working on a new submarine capable of launching nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
A Washington-based think tank revealed that North Korea has an estimated 20 undeclared missile operating bases. Sangnam-ni is one such base that “houses a battalion- or regiment-sized unit equipped with Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM),” which “provides a strategic-level first strike capability against targets located throughout East Asia as far as U.S. forces based in Okinawa and Guam.” Such a revelation makes President Trump’s tweet after Singapore that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” seem premature.
Since there are ten existing United Nations Security Council resolutions banning Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missiles, it’s worth asking why Pyongyang hasn’t declared these bases and why these bases are still operational.
Thae Yong-ho, a defector and former North Korea diplomat, knows the answer. He told a reporter recently that “even if it is paid trillions of dollars, the North will never abandon nuclear weapons under the Kim Jong-un regime,” because “nuclear weapons mean everything for the North. They are the pillars that support its system and that fills the gaps in its conventional weapons.” Many longtime North Korea observers agree with Thae’s assessment.
Therefore, President Trump will be better served if he isn’t overconfident about Kim’s willingness and commitment to denuclearization unless the United States is provided with clear and verifiable evidence. Let Kim Jong Un prove he is worthy of Trump’s vote of confidence.
2. Make Kim Commit to an Action Plan
One of the main reasons that many people regard the Singapore Summit as unsuccessful is the language of the joint statement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un is so vague that it doesn’t obligate Pyongyang with any specific timeline or detailed steps toward the Trump administration’s previously stated goal of “complete verifiable irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Although the understanding was that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would work with his North Korean counterpart to come up with an action plan for denuclearization, the North Korean government was totally uncooperative. Kim snubbed Pompeo by not meeting him during his July visit to Pyongyang. The North Korean government issued a sharply-worded statement that accused Pompeo of making a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization…which run counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks.” Since then, the “denuclearization” talks between the two countries have faltered because of Pyongyang’s unwillingness to provide an inventory of its nuclear weapons or to allow U.S. weapons inspectors into their country.
Because North Korea is a totalitarian state run by a dictator, it’s safe to assume that the lack of cooperation came from the unwillingness at the top, Kim himself. Thus, to make the second summit a success, President Trump needs to make Kim commit to denuclearization again by nailing down specific steps or action items and a timetable. Also, President Trump should not even entertain the idea to ease economic sanctions on North Korea until there is verifiable and concrete progress out of Pyongyang.
3. Remember, Kim Is a Ruthless Dictator
When President Trump first came to office, he didn’t mince words about Kim. He referred to Kim as a “little rocket man,” “madman,” and “maniac.” But leading up to the Singapore summit, President Trump started praising Kim as being “honorable” without explaining what Kim had done to deserve such an adjective.
After the Singapore summit, President Trump lavished Kim with more compliments, calling him a “very worthy, smart negotiator.” I have no doubt Kim is smart. After all, he didn’t beat out all his siblings and powerful uncles to win the “Game of Thrones,” Pyongyang edition, and become the supreme leader of North Korea by being stupid and incompetent. But when the U.S. president uses words such as “honorable” and “worthy” to praise Kim, it normalizes a cruel dictator whose behavior is neither honorable nor worthy.
According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive countries. Since Kim ascended to the throne, he continues to run the country like his dictatorial father and grandfather did, with an iron fist and ruthlessness. North Korea’s human rights situation continues to worsen under Kim’s rule.
In recent years, Kim has taken his ruthless tactics and gross human rights violation across borders, disregarding international laws and diplomatic norms. The world remembers that he had his half-brother Kim Jong Nam assassinated by a nerve agent in Malaysia in 2017. Only last week, Italian police opened an investigation after receiving reports that the daughter of a defected North Korean diplomat had been kidnapped in Rome and was sent back to Pyongyang.
We Americans should also never forget about Otto Warmbier, a young American college student with a bright future who was imprisoned by North Korea, returned home brain-dead, and passed away shortly after.
Kim may have a baby face, but he’s a brutal dictator with blood on his hands. His top priorities are neither world peace nor the North Korean people’s happiness and prosperity, but his own and his regime’s survival.
Going into the second summit, President Trump should remain clear-eyed about who is at the other side of the negotiating table. If President Trump can avoid being overconfident, remember Kim’s true nature, and make Kim commit to denuclearization with an action plan and a timetable, this summit will go down history as a success.