February 13, 2019
IntelBrief: Trump-Kim Nuclear Diplomacy: Round Two in Vietnam
Long before Afghanistan, Vietnam held a unique place in U.S. history as America’s ‘forever war.’ The legacy of Vietnam still reverberates today, both in terms of the remarkable length of combat operations (1955 to 1973) and concerning the social and political cleavages from that tragic war, which remain in the public consciousness decades later. Relations between Washington and Hanoi are now quite positive, with several presidential visits between the countries, including a 2000 visit by then-President Clinton and a 2015 visit by Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong. This spring, Hanoi will host what could be the location in officially ending America’s ‘Forgotten War:’ the 1950-1953 Korean War. While the U.S. has never declared the Korean War over, it has enjoyed a 66-year cease-fire as the result of an armistice.
On February 27-28, U.S. President Trump will meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for a second time; the first meeting was in Singapore in 2018. The second meeting occurs amidst both positive and negative developments between the countries. There has been an undeniable reduction in animosity between the two leaders in the last year, as social media barbs have been all but eliminated. However, missile tests by Pyongyang and warnings of nuclear annihilation continued to ratchet up tensions. Yet while U.S.-North Korean relations have long been strained, few credible observers believe that nuclear war was ever imminent, even while President Trump has intimated that he alone is the reason a nuclear strike has been kept at bay. By framing the issue in these terms, Trump may be hedging his bets if the series of talks ultimately produces something short of a major breakthrough.
One of the most positive takeaways from the last two years of increased engagement has been a warming of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The two countries seem on the verge of formally ending the conflict between them. Other world leaders are hopeful that there will be even more progress, building upon the current momentum. The country with the most to lose if the status quo remains or things get worse is South Korea. There has always been a gap between how South Korea views the U.S. position on North Korea and how Washington interprets that relationship. As with many complex geopolitical conflicts, local actors are often marginalized by the policies of their bigger and more powerful neighbors or allies. Accordingly, both Beijing and Tokyo are major stakeholders and retain vested interests in how potential denuclearization progresses. Seoul’s moves toward reconciliation with Pyongyang have unfolded in parallel to U.S. plans and will likely go beyond Washington’s designs for what it sees as the most prudent course for the peninsula.
The symbolism of the second U.S.-North Korea summit being held in Vietnam is palpable and impossible to ignore. Vietnam is still a communist country—albeit one with a rapidly growing economy, open to trade and tourism—and is one of the few countries to have battled the United States to a military stalemate. The relationship has been recast in a positive light, however. North Korea hopes to emulate this development in terms of its own relationship with other countries that still consider it a rogue state; perhaps one day opening its economy to the outside world. The U.S. seeks a similar outcome, but there is a major difference between the Vietnamese-U.S. model and any such model between North Korea and the U.S. Despite the positive spin apparent in President Trump’s tweets, Kim Jong Un still has not taken any verifiable steps to ‘completely denuclearize’ North Korea’s weapons program and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. After all, these weapons provide him with a degree of regime security unavailable to non-nuclear states. The deciding factor in making sustained progress will be whether or not the U.S. and the international community writ large can convince North Korea that it can prosper without nuclear weapons, leaving behind its image of a hermit kingdom guilty of unspeakable human rights abuses. Achieving this will require patience and a willingness to endure certain setbacks, but the alternative—possible nuclear warfare—is undoubtedly worse.
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