What’s Behind the North Korea Summit?

Trump’s second meeting with Kim Jong-Un just gives North Korea more time to perfect its nuclear bombs, argues Fletcher’s Sung-Yoon Lee

man views TV set in Korea with photos of Trump and Kim

In his upcoming summit with the leader of North Korea, President Donald Trump hopes to push the reclusive nation to take further steps toward giving up its nuclear weapons. But engaging in protracted negotiations with Kim Jong-Un plays right into the dictator’s hand, because it reduces international will to enforce tough sanctions against his regime, said Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“Trump is a gift to Kim, because he’s so easy to manipulate,” Lee said. “Trump will be unable to overcome his own ego and walk away” from the negotiations if they are not fruitful.

Trump is scheduled to meet with Kim in Vietnam on February 27 and 28. In the lead-up to the meeting, which is the leaders’ second tête-à-tête in less than a year, U.S. officials have been negotiating with their North Korean counterparts, hoping to persuade that country to take more concrete actions to give up its nuclear weapons and dismantle its nuclear and missile production facilities.

North Korea hasn’t detonated a nuclear device since September 2017 or tested a missile since November of that year. This has helped ease tensions, but Kim has not said he will give up the weapons altogether. After last summer’s summit, North Korea made goodwill gestures such as closing a nuclear test site and returning U.S. detainees, but reports suggest that the country continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile program. A U.S. judge recently ruled that North Korea was responsible for the hostage-taking, torture, and extra-judicial killing of one of the returned Americans, student Otto Warmbier, and ordered North Korea to pay $501 million in damages.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Lee to understand what this second summit might accomplish and the impact of the Warmbier case.

Tufts Now: Just hours after his first meeting with Kim Jong-Un last June, Trump declared there was “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” But in late January, he said there is just a “decent chance of denuclearization.” Why is Trump lowering expectations now?

Sung-Yoon Lee: He’s trapped in this never-ending process. His first mistake was to impulsively agree to meet in 2018, probably moved by a desire to make history. But you cannot just tame the funny-looking North Korean dictator with the privilege of a handshake, no matter who you are. Once the first summit happened and Trump signed an agreement, it made it much more difficult for him to admit that he made a mistake and to walk away from the deal that he endorsed himself. The second summit is an attempt to save face, to drag out this process of negotiations without reaching a real resolution, because I have to assume President Trump, despite what he says, cannot possibly believe that he can compel a state like North Korea that spent half a century in building the bomb to give all of it up in the next couple of years. It’s just not going to happen under normal circumstances.

With this second summit, how much closer will Trump get to his goal of persuading North Korea to end its nuclear program?

In international negotiations, they refer to “salami slicing”—you give a small, thin concession every time. I think in this case it’s more like a couple wafer-thin slices from a really big prosciutto leg.

What does North Korea stand to gain from a second meeting?

Basically, we’re giving Kim more time and money—money in the form of lax enforcement or non-enforcement of sanctions—to perfect the bomb. In 2017, all the nations of the world were on board that they had to at least pretend to do their part to isolate North Korea, to penalize North Korea. Now there’s no such will. It dissipated the moment, in March 2018, that Trump said “OK, let’s meet.”

In his dramatic image makeover last year, the North Korean dictator went from a cruel, weird, antisocial, bizarre dictator to being seen as a very reasonable, even charming, legitimate statesman with whom we can do business. He will ride that momentum and continue his summit pageantries. He will meet with Putin; he will meet with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe; he might even send his sister to the White House at some point; he may even speak at the U.N. General Assembly. That will not only further beautify Kim Jong-Un’s image, but make sanctions enforcement impossible.

Kim has billions to gain by not acting weird or threatening. Trump is a gift to Kim, because he’s so easy to manipulate. Trump will be unable to overcome his own ego and walk away from this “denuclearization” and “peace” charade, a cover for Pyongyang’s confirmation as a nuclear state.

In most summits like this, representatives from the two parties have already worked out details of a proposed deal, which allows the leaders to finalize and sign agreements. Is that the case here?

The exact opposite is the case here, and this is a problem. The first summit was a blind date. Now you have this illusion that some understanding was achieved, that we like each other. There’s “fantastic chemistry,” as the president said. The propensity is to give more, to make more concessions, because you delude yourself into thinking we have mutual understanding, we can trust each other. The two sides are negotiating, but they have less than two weeks to go now. It’s as if you pick a date and a venue for a wedding, but you have no idea what the wedding program is. There’s been no agreement—who your guests are, who’s sitting where, what kind of service it’s going to be. It’s truly absurd.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the summit’s location. The Trump administration holds up Vietnam as a powerful example of a former enemy becoming a U.S. partner and reaping economic success. But North Vietnam defeated the U.S. and re-unified Vietnam under communist leadership, something Kim would presumably like to do on the Korean peninsula. What message do you think is sent by the location?

In July, Secretary of State Pompeo said, “Your country can replicate this path. It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment. It can be your miracle in North Korea as well,” referring to Vietnam. You, too, can remain a single-party communist dictatorship, you can have a new beautiful relationship with us, as we do with our former enemy Vietnam, and you too can replicate this economic miracle.

That message—idealistic, well intended, I’m sure—is probably giving Kim Jong-Un daily bursts of laughter. Because in North Korean verbiage, the “Vietnam model” has a specific, very different meaning. It means become an unbearable political burden to the U.S., compel the U.S. to sign a peace agreement, get the U.S. troops out of the South, as in South Vietnam, and then just march right in, with tanks rolling. That is the Vietnam model for North Korea: a perfect model of reunification.

A peace agreement will render the U.N. command in Korea illegal. The U.N. command will have to be dismantled. Next, the U.S. troops in South Korea will have to go. That would not lead to a North Korean invasion overnight, but that will further isolate and weaken South Korea, and Kim Jong-Un will be ever closer to being able to extort, blackmail, and then move right in, take over the south.

South Korea recently agreed to pay nearly $1 billion to help cover the costs of maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula for the next year—an increase in spending, but still not as much as Trump had demanded. You’ve speculated that Trump might promise Kim to pull U.S. troops off the peninsula. How likely is that?

He floated that notion after his first meeting with Kim. On June 12, 2018, Trump announced that he was canceling the long-scheduled, large-scale combined military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, scheduled for August, which had been going on for four decades. Trump called these exercises “provocative” and expensive. That’s using North Korean verbiage. We’ll have to wait and see, but I will be surprised if Trump does not use the troops card, as he already has vis-a-vis South Korea (“we’re going to pull the troops if you don’t pay up more”), but in trying to placate Kim Jong-Un. To do more trust-building or confidence-building, he may promise to remove five or six thousand troops per year, from the approximately 28,000 troops there now.

Would that lead to nuclear proliferation in the region, specifically to South Korea arguing it needs to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself?

We’re headed in that direction, but it will take time, several years. Under the current South Korean administration, there’s no way the government will decide to develop the bomb. South Korea sees North Korea basically as a harmless, reactive, paranoid nation. If the U.S. withdrew, the current leaders of South Korea would be a little worried because the public would grow worried, but in the end, they would welcome it.

In December, the family of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was sent home brain-dead after being imprisoned in North Korea, was awarded $501 million by a U.S. District Court judge, who ruled that North Korea was liable for Warmbier’s torture, hostage-taking, and extrajudicial killing. You testified in that case. Will the Warmbiers ever see any of that money?

North Korea will try its best not to pay a penny. Will the Warmbiers see any money? Yes, because there is something called the U.S. Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which is in excess of $1 billion, managed by the Justice Department. The money comes from huge fines levied by the U.S. government against willful sanctions violators, such as major banks. The family, I would think, may apply to tap into that fund. They probably won’t get all that was awarded to them, but they probably stand to get at a minimum 10 percent, based on precedents. The Treasury Department also has about $70 million of North Korean funds frozen. The Warmbiers may get some money from that as well.

This wasn’t about $1 million or $10 million or $100 million. It was always about fighting back against North Korea. The North Koreans claimed Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster, but the only evidence they presented was very grainy video footage of a human form—could be you, could be me, could be Santa Claus, there’s just no way to tell, it’s such poor quality—somebody removing what looks to be a framed photograph from a wall and setting it down very gently and walking away. Warmbier’s was a kangaroo court style confession. It was obvious that it was a coerced confession. They implanted an electrode in his left foot for administering electric shocks; they pulled out his teeth and then shoved them back in. He came back like a zombie, deaf, blind, moaning.

Will the judgment have an impact on U.S. negotiations with North Korea?

It won’t affect the summit, because both sides will assiduously ignore it. Will it have a deterrence effect in the future? It depends on what the U.S. government does. If $60 or $70 million of North Korean funds, or a big chunk of that, is awarded to the Warmbiers, maybe North Korea will think twice. That, deterrence against hostage-taking, was the Warmbiers’ high priority.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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