Vietnam summit: What does Kim want?

Kim Jong Un badly needs the sanctions on North Korea relaxed but in exchange he will have to make big concessions.

Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump on February 27 in Hanoi, Vietnam [File: KCNA/Reuters]

When North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and the US President Donald Trump meet for the second time later this week in Vietnam, they will have to talk business.

Their first summit last year in nearby Singapore was largely an icebreaker, an historic event that was undoubtedly an enormous achievement in itself. However, it failed to produce any concrete plan of action or commitments from either side.  

Since then, the Trump administration has only agreed to draw down its most provocative military exercises in the Korean Peninsula, and reluctantly supported expanding infrastructure connectivity between the two Koreas.  

The US president has suggested he was under “no pressing time schedule” and “no rush” to finalise a denuclearisation deal with North Korea, but he is also desperate to secure maximum publicity and diplomatic capital before launching his reelection campaign.

This time around, however, there is a growing demand for concrete concessions, especially from the North Korean leader, who has yet to secure sanctions relief. Kim will have to get concrete results from this summit if he is to realise his grand plan for North Korea, but he will have to also offer something in exchange. 

Kim’s dream

Nothing captures the supreme leader’s desperation for rapid economic modernisation more than the Ryomyong New Town, a new luxury residential and business district that was built within few months in 2016, just before the latest sanctions kicked in.

When Kim came to power, he embarked on an ambitious economic modernisation programme, which included the construction of a Sci-Tech Complex, the Natural History Museum, People’s Outdoor Ice Rink, and a number of new streets and industrial complexes.

Most of these projects, however, represent the golden shimmering ambitions of a young despot who has found himself besieged by one of the toughest economic embargoes in human history. The first Kim-Trump summit relaxed North Korea’s international diplomatic isolation, enhanced bilateral relations with South Korea and other East Asian nations, but it failed to convince Washington to relax the ongoing economic siege and ease its compliance mechanisms.

As recent reports have indicated, the increased policing of the East China Sea by a coalition of regional and Western forces has made the smuggling of fuel and other necessities increasingly costly for North Korea.

The North Korean economy is still surviving, but barely. It’s now humiliatingly dependent on a single foreign power, namely China for the bulk of its imports and foreign exchange earnings. Such a state of overdependence defeats the whole purpose of the country’s “Juche doctrine” of self-reliance. 

In his New Year’s address, Kim was explicit about the need to “revitalise”, “reinforce”, and “re-energise” the national economy and the urgency of “hitting the targets of the five-year strategy for national economic development.”

He extended an olive branch to Washington, stating “if the US responds to our proactive, prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions, bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace through the process of taking more definite and epochal measures.”

At the summit, Kim will likely ask for Washington to began relaxing international sanctions, open direct diplomatic channels, and sign a final peace agreement, which would officially end the Korean War (1950-1953). Eventually, Pyongyang wants the United States to withdraw its troops and weapons from the Korean Peninsula.

Kim’s predicament

But while making big demands, the North Korean leader will also have to make concessions of his own. Washington demands a significant and sustained rollback in the North Korean nuclear weapons programme, a cessation in ballistic missile tests, and an end to military provocations in the surrounding waters or at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

So far, Kim has offered to dismantle the main nuclear and missile launching sites in exchange for sanctions relief and a permanent peace agreement with the US. But the US still demands complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) before it takes any steps to loosen the world’s toughest sanctions regime yet. 

Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons, its ultimate leverage and insurance policy unless it gets security guarantees, a measure of diplomatic recognition, and relief from sanctions from Washington.

Thus the fundamental problem here is the issue of sequencing – namely who makes which concessions in what order.

The most sensible approach is a step-by-step, reciprocal set of concessions, whereby the US gradually loosens sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s nuclear rollback. The culmination of this peace regime would be the complete normalisation of bilateral ties and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

On both sides, especially in Pyongyang which is still under heavy sanctions, patience is running thin, and if the two leaders end up with another purely symbolic outcome, drenched in declaratory statements rather than tangible results, there is a high chance that the whole gambit will fall apart. Thus, it’s important for both sides to, at the very least, negotiate the blueprint of a final peace agreement, which will officially end the decades-long inter-Korean war.  

Fortunately, however, there are indications that the summit will likely culminate in a final peace agreement, which will formally end the war in the peninsula. Hopefully, this could create the much-needed momentum for a phased, long-term peace regime that will entail both denuclearisation and sanctions relief. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.