Things are gearing up for the second US-North Korean summit.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left Pyongyang by train for Hanoi, Vietnam, on Saturday afternoon. US President Donald Trump was to fly to Hanoi on Monday.
It takes about 60 hours to go from Pyongyang to Hanoi by train. By going across China to Vietnam by train, Kim seems to have wanted to show off the friendship between North Korea and China, and raise his negotiation position against the US.
It is noticeable that the North Korean leader has included high-ranking economic policymakers in his entourage. They stayed in Pyongyang during the first summit.
This appears to have been intended to give them a chance to experience the Vietnamese model of reform and openness directly and reflect the experience in their policies. It could be viewed as an expression of intent to develop the North’s economy.
Trump and Kim are expected to shape up agreements they reached in Singapore last year. In the second summit, North Korea should offer concrete denuclearization steps. Depending on the level of the steps proposed, Washington will gauge the sincerity of Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearize, and offer measures accordingly. The US and the North should speed working-level negotiations to the last minute to produce the best possible outcome from the summit.
The Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the North Korean Workers’ Party, recently carried an article highlighting Kim’s decision to denuclearize his country. It said the North could not turn away nor step back from denuclearization. It may have said so to emphasize its commitment to denuclearize. The North must walk the walk.
The North has not taken substantial steps yet to demonstrate its denuclearization commitment despite agreements in its summits with the South and the US. It cannot gain trust and sanctions relief from the international community this way. Taking concrete steps to denuclearize is the only way to become a trustworthy member of the international community.
There have been concerns that the US may settle for a “small deal” in which North Korea freezes its nuclear and missile programs. This will lead to a worst-case scenario in which South Koreans will have to live under a constant nuclear threat from the North. This route must be avoided.
A “big deal” in which the North takes quick and bold denuclearization steps in exchange for some concessions from the US is the way for the communist country to get sanctions relief and revive its economy.
Kim reportedly told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he doesn’t want his children to be burdened by the nuclear weapons their whole life. He said so during Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang in April last year, according to former CIA official Andrew Kim who accompanied Pompeo. When asked whether the North Korean leader was willing to end his nuclear program, he said to Pompeo, “I am a father and a husband and have children.”
Hopefully, this will be remembered as an anecdote which showed the sincerity of his commitment to denuclearize.
The second US-North Korea summit must produce better results than the first one.
The US must avoid a scenario in which it effectively acknowledges North Korea as a nuclear power. The North must realize that if it hangs on to nuclear armament and the path of isolation, it will only destroy the lives of its 25 million people, Kim’s children included.
Seoul and Washington have offered a wide array of incentives to help North Korea move onto a path of economic development after denuclearization.
As the second summit nears, expectations of positive outcomes have risen higher than ever, but it is unclear yet if the North will accept demands for concrete steps to denuclearize, including a road map to remove its nuclear arsenal.
Pyongyang should seize the meeting to show the sincerity of its denuclearization commitment and strike a bold and big deal.