US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will today embark on their second summit, this time in Hanoi, Vietnam. Singapore hosted the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018 where the leaders signed an agreement that committed the two countries to continue working toward denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. There were no explicit obligations by North Korea to actually disarm.

Experts from the United States Studies Centre weigh in on the second summit:

Dr Charles Edel, Senior Fellow: "Just as with their first meeting in Singapore last June, this meeting will likely be long on optics and short on specifics. Both Kim and Trump are likely to claim credit for a successful meeting regardless of what the meeting did or did not actually produce. The success or failure of such a meeting, however, depends on more than just these two heads of state. China and South Korea will play a large role in shaping the diplomatic process, and Japan is likely to endure significant strategic consequences as the result of any outcome. Focusing too closely on the spectacle of another Trump-Kim summit also obscures larger questions about America’s future on the Korean Peninsula and, more broadly, the stability of Northeast Asia. For Australia, these are the larger issues at stake."

Dr Gorana Grgic, Lecturer in US Politics and Foreign Policy: "It appears the DPRK benefits more from these talks — both in terms of the legitimacy it’s given, as well as tangible concessions. In that vein, the reports that we might be in for a surprise with the announcement of a formal end to the Korean War is a bargaining chip that should not be offered lightly. Moreover, the issue of how each side understands denuclearisation has not gone away since the United States speaks only in terms of elimination of the North Korean nuclear program, while the DPRK wants to see the United States withdraw its nuclear umbrella from the region. As with the first summit and given the fickleness of these negotiations, we should have managed expectations."

Dr John Lee, Non-Resident Senior Fellow: "The current state of play is as follows: North Korea has not taken any meaningful steps towards denuclearisation and continues to maintain and develop its nuclear-capable missile facilities. Pyongyang refuses to do any different until the United States declares the formal end of hostilities in the form of a peace treaty with North Korea. Pyongyang also wants the United States to relax United Nations Security Council and unilateral sanctions as the beginning point to meaningful concessions. For the United States, the sequencing must be the reverse of what Pyongyang is demanding. The Vietnam Summit is largely about whether the two sides can agree on sequencing. It is also an opportunity for Trump to ascertain the extent to which economic development matters to Kim, and whether the carrot of economic assistance can force Kim to compromise on sequencing."

Brendan Thomas-Noone, Research Fellow: "The summit could lead to an historic announcement of an official end to the Korean War. A peace deal would deliver a long sought after goal for the North Koreans and provide a big political win for President Trump; particularly as a message he can sell to his base back home. But there is a looming danger: a diminished US military presence in the region might be the outcome of talks. North Korea has attained its ultimate security blanket in the form of a triple threat: a nuclear-tipped ICBM that threatens the US homeland; a US president who may be willing to trade concessions for headlines; and a progressive regime in South Korea that is naturally sceptical of the US alliance and seeks ever closer economic engagement with Pyongyang. One thing is looking increasingly certain, a nuclear North Korea is here to stay."

Ashley Townshend, Foreign Policy and Defence Program Director: "Both sides have made it abundantly clear that the space for real negotiations is wafer thin. Kim Jong-un – while refraining from nuclear and missile testing, and partially dismantling elements of his nuclear program – still wants major sanctions relief, a drawdown of US forces in South Korea, and an end to the US nuclear umbrella on the Korean Peninsula in return for denuclearisation. Donald Trump seems willing to grant some concessions. These would ideally include a halt to fissile material or weapons production, and a partial closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. But many in his administration appear fixated on unilateral disarmament as the focus of negotiations. This won’t work. If there’s any chance of progress, both leaders will need to build trust and make real concessions. Trump has several bargaining chips, such as the conditional lifting of some sanctions, and a declaration to formally end the Korean War. If US negotiators can use these to edge along verifiable progress on limiting and containing North Korea’s arsenal, minor breakthroughs might be possible. This requires Washington to accept Pyongyang’s hard-won nuclear status, but it would be in the interest of stability for the entire region."


Drew Sheldrick
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