Premium Trump and Kim Part II: Between Optimism and Realism

After their initial meeting on June 12 in Singapore, the President of the United States and the North Korean leader will meet again in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, on the 27th and 28th of this month.

The first summit between the American president and the North Korean leader in Singapore, José Carlos Matias anticipates the new meeting in Vietnam between the two leaders. The nuclear issue is back on the table at the Hanoi summit, after the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in June, which ended with many vague promises but few concrete measures. From an old enemy to America's ally in Asia, Vietnam was the country chosen to host the second meeting between the two leaders. Even absent from the summit, China has already shown that it has a say on this relationship.

Denuclearization

That was the key issue at the historic Singapore June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. At the time, Kim undertook to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, the joint statement issued did not refer to verification mechanisms and concrete steps to be taken, which has led to skepticism among several observers. The US president actually wrote on Twitter, the day after the summit, that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. That same month, Trump announced that Pyongyang was dismantling four of the biggest sites used for ballistic tests, but no evidence of that movement was revealed, and Trump himself would soon wind up extending sanctions to North Korea. A confidential United Nations document, made public in August, revealed that the Kim regime continued to develop its nuclear program and violate international sanctions through the arms and fuel smuggling. Trump sends out that summer more contradictory signs. First he states Reuters that he would meet Kim again, saying he believed that Pyogyang had taken specific steps towards denuclearization; then asks Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel a planned trip to Pyongyang, citing insufficient progress on the North Korean side.

The diplomatic boom is intensifying again, and the presidents of the two Koreas are again side by side at the third summit between Kim and South Korean head of state Moon Jae-in on September 19 and 20. Pyongyang commits itself to permanently shut down its largest nuclear complex in exchange for unspecified reciprocal action by the United States.

Pompeo finally went to Pyongyang and meets Kim, reaffirming that the North Korean regime had made significant progress in the long process of denuclearization.

The challenge is now, at the Hanoi Summit, a specific road map for denuclearization, with dates and steps to be taken, along with a verification process. This is emphasized by Dennis Wilder, director for East Asia of the National Security Council during the administration of George W. Bush. "There must be a much more substantial statement than the one that emerged from the first summit in Singapore," he told Radio Voice of America.

Personal relationship

They could be seen as "strange bedfellows," but it may be said that the chemistry between the two was evident from the first hour-as they strolled side by side in the gardens of the Capella Hotel in Singapore. In the first declarations after the summit, Trump spoke of an honest, direct and productive encounter with Kim, who he described as "very talented," "very intelligent," or "very good negotiator."

Less than a year before, in September of 2017, before the UN General Assembly, the US president nicknamed Kim "little rocket man".

The personal relationship gained an affectionate outline when Kim sent a letter to Trump in September of 2018, classified as "very positive, warm" by the American president who at a rally with supporters went so far as to say that he and Kim had "fallen in love" after an exchange of "exceptional" letters. The tone was stressed in December during a meeting with the South Korean president. Moon told reporters that he had a message for his North Korean counterpart: "The message is that President Trump has a very favorable disposition towards President Kim and that he likes him."

China: absent but always present

Once again China is not directly present at the Trump-Kim summit, but Beijing is keen to maintain centrality in this process. It is recalled that before the meeting in Singapore, Kim had met the Chinese President Xi Jinping twice in China. In addition, the North Korean leader traveled to Singapore aboard an Air China plane. The powerful neighbor has always paid close attention to the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, in a time when there are growing commercial and technological tensions between China and the US.

And Kim is back to be with Xi weeks before this second summit, the 10 of January of this year. The entire heads of state of China and North Korea have met four times over the past twelve months. The signal given is clear: Beijing wants to play a key role, showing that it remains the strategic ally of North Korea and that no agreement is possible without the Chinese blessing.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, an expert on nuclear issues at the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy summarizes China's equation.

"As long as North Korea has nuclear weapons, it is an excuse to strengthen its military capabilities and for the US to strengthen its alliances in the region and to channel anti-missile defense systems and other military assets into China's neighborhood."

Why Hanoi?

Just over four decades ago, Vietnam was the scene of what was perhaps the most traumatic military operation of the United States in the post-World War II era. The world has changed and Vietnam is now one of Washington's strategic partners in Southeast Asia, and bilateral relations have experienced years of intensification, cemented in the then-US President Barack Obama's visit to the country in 2016.

Like North Korea, Vietnam was involved in a war with the North Americans and has a single communist party political regime. However, unlike Pyongyang, Hanoi has embraced a process of economic reform and liberalization over the past forty years, in a move similar to the steps taken by China in recent decades.

The Vietnamese capital had already been referred as the possible venue for the first summit between Trump and Kim, which took place in June in Singapore. The next week meeting is thus an opportunity for diplomatic and geopolitical affirmation.

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