A roadmap for partial denuclearization is a realistic goal for President Donald Trump to set for the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, because Pyongyang is unlikely to give up all its nuclear weapons in the near future, experts said.
During their first summit, Trump and Kim agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But since then, the two sides have failed to agree on what that means, and how or when it will be carried out. A second summit is scheduled to take place in Vietnam Feb. 27-28.
“It is absolutely possible to make progress toward denuclearization, but it is not clear whether the objective of full denuclearization is achievable — on North Korea’s current trajectory,” said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korean policy program at the Council of Foreign Relations.
“But the job of Trump as a disruptive policymaker is to work with Kim to change the trajectory of the respective policies of the two governments,” Snyder added. North Korea has not taken meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear program, raising doubts about making significant progress toward full denuclearization.
Ken Gause, director of International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, echoed Snyder, saying the likelihood that Pyongyang will not give up all its nuclear weapons is “entirely possible at least for the foreseeable future.”
However, Gause said, “that does not mean that North Korea might not make concessions on its nuclear program and dismantle a part of its nuclear program. So as long as we’re not talking absolutes here, I think that progress could be made toward denuclearization.”
Optimistic tone from Trump
During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump used an optimistic tone to announce the second summit.
“Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one,” he said.
The official announcement came after the president appeared on “Face the Nation” on Sunday and told Margaret Brennan, host of the CBS show, that there is “a very good chance of making a deal” with Kim.
To gear up for the second summit, U.S. Special Representative Steve Biegun traveled to Pyongyang to have working-level talks with his North Korean counterpart Kim Hyok Chol on Wednesday.
Ahead of his trip, Biegun laid out several demands Washington wants North Korea to meet including “a set of concrete deliverables” and “a roadmap of negotiations” on denuclearization when he gave a speech last week at Stanford University.
The first summit Trump held with Kim in Singapore in June has been characterized as “a missed opportunity” where “only vague and ambiguous language” came out of the joint statement issued by the two leaders and lacking “any follow-up implementation process,” according to Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Experts said the ideal deal for Washington at the second summit would be to secure from Pyongyang an agreement to disclose the inventory of its nuclear weapons as a sign of Kim’s seriousness about eventual full denuclearization.
“What the U.S. administration, and also Seoul, has talked about is a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear program,” Gause said.
Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration suggested to VOA Korean that Trump should not go to Vietnam without a certainty of obtaining the inventory.
“If you are able to establish that [Kim’s] ready to make those concessions, declare all of his nuclear weapons, fissile material, then you go.” Burn said. “But if he’s not ready to do that, don’t go.”
Biegun said in his Stanford speech the U.S. must “have a complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction missile programs,” but it is unclear whether he has asked for a list during his meeting in Pyongyang this week.
Gause, however, thinks Pyongyang is unlikely to reveal the list that it considers one of its best bargaining chips.
“I cannot imagine them for the foreseeable future giving a comprehensive list,” Gause said. “To do so, would take away leverage and flexibility from their negotiating position.”
Some experts believe it is unlikely that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear program.
“I do not believe that Kim Jong Un will give up his nuclear weapons because I think that he sees them as an insurance policy for his regime survival,” Burns said. “He believes he can have the negotiations and keep his weapons.”
Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said, “The North Korean leader has made a strategic decision to retain his nuclear weapons, even as he seeks to improve relations with the United States.
“As a result,” he added, “getting Kim Jong Un to take the kind of steps that would constitute real denuclearization will likely not be possible.”
Their assessment follows the testimony of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at a Senate hearing last week. Coats expressed skepticism over Pyongyang’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons.
A confidential report by the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee, which Reuters obtained and reported on Monday, assessed North Korea is trying to prevent its nuclear and missile capabilities from being destroyed by any military strikes by “using civilian facilities, including airports” and dispersing “its assembly, storage, and testing locations.”
Since last year’s negotiations that stalled when Pyongyang abruptly canceled a planned meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Washington has softened its initial hard-line approach toward North Korea. At the time, Washington refused to relax its maximum pressure policy until North Korea denuclearized.
But last week at Stanford, Biegun said the U.S. will pursue commitments made at the Singapore summit by taking steps “simultaneously and in parallel” with the process of Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
“Washington realizes that ‘final fully verified’ denuclearization can only be achieved in a series of stages over time and that the U.S. will need to take measures in response to North Korean actions at every stage,” said Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration.
“The U.S. flexibility comes in not insisting on a definitive result on the front end of the process,” Snyder said, “but instead in being willing to join with North Korea in an experiment in which the desired outcome is not yet completely defined.”
Lee Joeun of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.