On February 27th, one of the most anticipated diplomatic events of 2019 will begin in Hanoi, Vietnam. The two-day summit between United States President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un will see talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and the possible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This marks the second time these two controversial and volatile leaders have met. The first summit, held last June, was one of most heavily covered diplomatic events of the year.Long heralded as the historical first-ever meeting between the heads of state of the U.S and North Korea, the summit was ultimately anti-climatic, the result simply a vague promise by Kim Jong-un to move towards denuclearisation. Since then, progress has been slow bordering on non-existent. North Korea has made a big show of suspending its nuclear and missile tests yet has made little to no progress dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Now, the two powers once again have a chance to make history, yet there is a concern that once again it will be a lacklustre affair. However, hope can be found in the ambitions of the main two parties, with both the U.S. and North Korea angling for some kind of deal.
It has been surmised that Kim Jong-un’s main goal for the summit is to improve the despondent economy of North Korea, while maintaining his vice-like grip over his fiefdom. In 2017, North Korea’s economy contracted sharply, with the GDP dropping by 3.5%. Analysts such as Shin Seung-cheol have argued that the decline was caused by a combination of American economic sanctions and a devastating drought. “External trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products,” Shin said. “It’s difficult to put exact numbers on those but it (export bans) crashed industrial production.” Kim needs the U.S sanctions to be dropped in order for the North Korean economy to avoid complete collapse, and to ensure the survival of his reign.
Trump has indicated that Kim could have the economic recovery he seeks if he drops his nuclear weapons programs. He has stated that “[North Korea] has a chance to be one of the great economic countries in the world,” but only if they agree to a denuclearisation process. Since the first summit, Kim has publicly made steps to follow that path, including the dismantling of nuclear test sites, yet satellite data from United States and other Western spy agencies show nuclear weapons research and development continuing in North Korea unabated, outside of the public eye. This unwillingness to give up his nuclear weapons program highlights the extent to which Kim has tied his and his country’s future to nuclear weapons. According to Kim, it is these weapons that have allowed North Korea to stay isolated and free of disturbance from the U.S and other powers. Giving up nuclear weapons would mean that Kim would be giving up the tools that allow him to remain in power unchecked. For Kim to make a deal that would legitimately put the Korean peninsula on the path to denuclearisation, he would need some guarantee that he would be able to remain supreme leader.
Regarding the summit, Trump is clearly looking for a diplomatic or political win. He faced criticism for last year’s summit being nothing more than a photo op. It has also recently come out that the American government asked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Currently, with Trump facing multiple domestic crises and controversies, and having stated just this month that he believes he deserves a Nobel prize for his actions, it is clear he is hoping that success with Kim will lead to a surge in political support back home, helping him to push forward with his presently-stalled border security plans.
Trump’s personal ambitions aside, the American government are also keen on achieving the denuclearisation of North Korea. Government officials have made it clear that they would be willing to drop economic sanctions if North Korea made substantial movements towards dismantling their nuclear weapons program. They demand North Korea make the first move before they start to ease up with the sanctions, as well as the military presence in South Korea.
The choice of Hanoi as the location for the summit is an understandable one. Vietnam has diplomatic ties and a history with both the U.S. and North Korea, rendering it a neutral zone, and it has tight political control and an efficient security apparatus that enables it to serve as a secure hosting ground. It also serves as a symbolic venue, as Vietnam is one of the few communist states that has been able to achieve rapid economic growth and success while avoiding the collapse of its one-party political system, a success that Kim Jong-un wants to emulate. Further, while Vietnam’s relationship with the United States was once outright hostile, it has become friendly more recently. “By choosing Vietnam, the two leaders send a strong strategic message to the world that they are willing to make a breakthrough decision to turn an enemy into a friend,” said Vu Minh Khuong, an associate professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Nonetheless, despite its stated neutrality, Vietnam itself has its own goals regarding the summit.
An obvious motive is that hosting the summit gives Vietnam a lot of international attention. The summit will bring intense media coverage, which the Vietnamese government is hoping will lead to tourists and investors becoming interested in Vietnam. “It can also be a chance for Vietnam to showcase its active foreign policy, through which Vietnam would like to contribute more to the international community, as well as to regional peace and security,” said Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The summit also serves as a way for Vietnam to gain diplomatic support regarding its rivalry with China. Tensions in the South China Sea have motivated Vietnam to look for ways to build diplomatic support to serve as “a hedge against Beijing”. Further, Vietnam seeks deeper relations with the U.S. Ever since Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Vietnam has been looking to regain economic and political ties with the nation.
Although fears abound that this summit will once again lead to an unsatisfying conclusion, there is still a possibility that substantial progress can be made between the two nations. The issue is that there are divides within their individual goals. North Korea is torn between its need for economic growth and its desire to remain a nuclear power. The United States is similarly being torn between its President’s urge for a diplomatic victory and the governments desire for denuclearisation. If either of the countries can make a definite concession, then maybe there is hope.
Evan Freidin is a freelance writer whose interests include International Security and Asia-Pacific affairs. He holds a Masters of International Relations from the University of Melbourne.