VOA NEWS/Steve Herman
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — U.S. President Donald Trump is heading to Hanoi for his second summit with Kim Jong Un amid hopes for a deal that would lead to the North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons.
«I think we’ll have a very tremendous summit. We want denuclearization, and I think he’ll have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy,» Trump said in remarks at the White House before departing.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, two months ago, said a second summit was needed because North Korea had yet to live up to the commitments it made last June in Singapore.
After the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore, Trump declared, «there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.»
But as he meets Wednesday and Thursday with Kim in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, there is little concrete evidence that progress has been made to set the specific terms of North Korea’s promised denuclearization.
On Wednesday evening, Trump will have a brief one-on-one conversation with Kim followed by a dinner that will include U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Kim will also have two aides present and both men will have translators.
Trump and Kim will then hold a series of official meetings Thursday.
A lack of a major breakthrough for the second time could have negative political ramifications for Trump.
«If the president makes substantive concessions, I think he will get serious bipartisan criticism,» says James Jay Carafano, the vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s institute for national security and foreign policy.
That would «probably be the last thing he needs» amid the possible release this week of a summary of the special counsel’s report into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 election campaign, adds Carafano.
«If the report is good news, a distraction is bad,» Carafano tells VOA. «If it’s bad news, it will compound his problems.»
Some analysts, however, predict there would be scant political damage for Trump as he can just declare a foreign policy victory.
«All it takes is Kim pretending to disarm and Trump pretending to believe him,» says Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
«So long as Kim doesn’t embarrass Trump publicly by testing a nuclear weapon or a ballistic missile, domestically Trump can keep rinsing and repeating,» Narang, author of the book Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era tells VOA. «The advantage for Trump is that Kim’s continued expansion of his nuclear weapons program is largely silent, and, at best, shows up on page 10» of local newspapers in the United States.
«If nothing positive happens, the Democratic Party hawks and the media may mock Trump’s pretensions and claims to be a master negotiator,» says Professor Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. «But as long as tensions don’t re-erupt on the Korean peninsula, most Americans will be satisfied with the status quo and move on to other issues.»
If Trump can keep the North Korean leader engaged, diplomatic efforts continue with sanctions still in place and Pyongyang maintains its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, «Trump can pocket a foreign policy win going into the election,» according to Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs.
With a status quo for at least another year, the president «can tell his supporters to stick with him so he can ‘finish the job’ in another four years,» Heinrichs tells VOA.
There is anxiety Trump might trade away the presence of U.S. troops in the Far East for concessions by Kim on nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such a move, besides alarming allies, could also open Trump to severe political criticism back home from both the left and the right.
«There is concern «Trump will ad-lib concessions to Kim Jong Un without his team knowing about it before hand,» says Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
«Concrete denuclearization steps don’t mean getting rid of things they don’t need anymore. It means touching parts of their program that matter, even if they are baby steps at first.» She added that a «front-loading on U.S. concessions without getting anything proportionate in return, as Trump did in Singapore, risks losing negotiating leverage very quickly and allowing Pyongyang to dictate this entire process. »
What is denuclearization?
One unresolved issue is a mutually-agreed definition of denuclearization.
Trump administration officials have insisted there must be «complete, verifiable and irreversible» removal of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, including its delivery systems.
For the North Koreans «denuclearization» also includes U.S. strategic assets leaving the region, as well as its long-harbored desire for American forces to depart from South Korean and, possibly, Japan where the United States military has posted 75,000 personnel and maintains about 50 installations, not including rapid response air and naval forces on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam that Pyongyang also considers threatening.
A senior U.S. official says the American team has been seeking with the North Koreans a «shared understanding of what denuclearization is,» while it is yet unclear whether Kim has even made the decision to fully denuclearize.
Asked whether there has been any demand from the North Koreans about removing U.S. troops from the peninsula in exchange for a peace treaty, the official responded in a background call with reporters last week, «I’ve never discussed that in any round of negotiations.»
Another possibility is that the summit pivots from an emphasis on denuclearization. There is speculation the two leaders could announce an agreement to exchange liaison officers, a step short of diplomatic recognition that would see full-fledged ambassadors posted to each other’s capitals.
Trump has hinted at further one-on-one diplomacy between himself and Kim.
«I don’t think this will be the last meeting by any chance,» Trump told reporters in the Oval Office last Wednesday.
One desired outcome for the U.S. president is a Nobel Peace Prize, for which he says Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already nominated him.
«While the thought of Trump as a Nobel laureate seems patently absurd, he desperately wants to win, and there have been some other patently absurd winners in the past, including the recent past,» Kuznick tells VOA. «So, let’s see if Trump can pull a rabbit out of his hat or out of somewhere and surprise the world.»