Prospects for the Trump-Kim Vietnam Summit: NTI’s Richard Johnson on CSIS Expert Panel

This post was written by Jessica Rogers, an intern with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Rogers is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

NTI’s Senior Director for Fuel Cycle and Verification Richard Johnson on Friday joined an expert panel hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to discuss prospects for this week’s summit in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Johnson and his fellow panelists—former US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Laura Rosenberger, CSIS’s Victor Cha, and CSIS’s Sue Mi Terry—discussed the possibility of a “denuclearization” deal with North Korea and agreed that the United States would need to see more substantive outcomes in Hanoi than from the 2018 Singapore summit when the two sides issued no more than an aspirational statement.

Can we expect more progress from the Vietnam Summit this week?

For Johnson, one sign of a successful Vietnam Summit would be the launch of a more regular and sustained working-level negotiation process going forward. The other panelists agreed that process and coordination, both within the U.S. government and with other states, are prerequisites if there is to be real progress in reducing the North Korean threat. The complexity of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program requires a detailed, step-by-step process starting with working-level talks to address all connected issues.

Johnson explained that these working-level talks should also include technical experts and get into specifics. “If you look at all of the previous North Korea cases, a lot of them fell apart because of misunderstandings about what the words actually meant,” he said, adding that “while ambiguity can be great and a diplomat’s best friend ... when you’re talking about technical issues, you want specificity.”

Laura Rosenberger said she would look to see if the summit resulted in a detailed joint statement negotiated, agreed upon, and carried out by the U.S. and North Korean leaders, though she expressed skepticism that this was achievable, noting the Singapore statement was supposed to be followed promptly by additional diplomatic engagement that never materialized.

What could next steps look like?

For Johnson, the essential next step is for North Korea to freeze its fissile material production in a verifiable way, preferably through the involvement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Johnson said he would like to see a declaration from North Korea about its nuclear program early in the negotiation process, but it could be done in stages, starting with an initial declaration of its nuclear material production. Rosenberger agreed that a declaration was not essential as the first step, but she had concerns about getting too far down the road without some better understanding of North Korea’s programs.  At the same time, they agreed with Victor Cha’s warning that the United States should not give up too much in exchange for an incomplete declaration.

The panelists voiced another common concern: That the North Koreans are trying to trade things used as bargaining chips in previous negotiations, such as the Yongbyon nuclear facility. For a successful deal and to avoid previous mistakes, North Korean actions should be met with limited, proportionate steps by the United States, especially given Pyongyang’s history of reversing past denuclearization measures.

Finally, what could a deal with North Korea look like?

On the North Korean side, Sue Mi Terry said she could imagine a continued halt to nuclear and missile testing, a limit on existing stockpiles, and a shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor—the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program and its only source of weapons-grade plutonium. On the U.S. side, she sees the possibility of easing sanctions, opening a liaison office, and granting a declaration on the end of the Korean War. Terry warned, however, that Americans view an “end of war declaration” as something more symbolic, while the North Koreans could interpret it as a promise to pull out U.S. troops from South Korea.

Johnson emphasized that for any agreement to be successful, verification is key. He recommends that the U.S. address its verification demands early in the negotiation process. The U.S. needs to clarify that it expects North Korea eventually to sign on to the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol to verify any final agreement. By setting these expectations now, North Korea is less likely to claim that the United States is “moving the goalposts” and derail what will already be a long and strenuous negotiation process. 


February 26, 2019

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