At 6:50 p.m. ET on Thursday, United Airlines flight UA808 carrying North Korea’s top negotiator Kim Yong Chol will touch down in Dulles International Airport just outside Washington.
By the time he is scheduled to depart on a China Air flight at 3:35 p.m. Saturday, North Korea’s former spymaster hopes to have secured Kim Jong Un a second high-profile summit with Donald Trump.
The envoy is reportedly carrying a letter from the North Korean leader that he hopes to hand to Trump, following Friday meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. special representative to North Korea Steve Biegun.
Reports suggest Trump could soon announce a date for a second summit, with the Washington Post reporting a March or April sit-down possibly in the Vietnamese town of Danang.
But the White House has yet to comment on the visit, and Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that North Korea has failed to take any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons.
After months of stalled negotiations, the talks represent a chance for Washington and Pyongyang to establish meaningful steps toward a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. But experts are divided about what, if anything, a second summit can achieve.
“While it's encouraging that the two sides now seem poised to follow up their Singapore summit, the elephant in the room is what will this accomplish?” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News. “We still don't have any identifiable progress from the first drumroll event. North Korea seems determined to have its cake and eat it in terms of breaking down sanctions, getting development aid, and even investment for not very much in return.”
Despite the lack of progress towards denuclearization, Trump has been consistently upbeat in his assessment of the previous talks.
“With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue,” Trump said on Jan. 6. “I’m going to not go any further than that. I’m just going to say it’s very special. And anybody else but me, you’d be in war right now.”
Trump isn't the only one who sees positives in the U.S.-North Korean negotiations in recent months.
“There has been movement since the last summit,” Joel Wit, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, told VICE News.
Wit points to comments from Pence that the U.S. had changed its position on asking for a full declaration of North Korea's nuclear program up front “because it realized that was unrealistic and wouldn't help the negotiations move forward.”
He also noted Kim Jong Un’s offer to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility — unusually for the regime showing part of its negotiating hand in public. Wit also cites U.S. moves to create a better atmosphere for the next summit, including an expected announcement about the limited lifting of a sanction that prevents American NGOs from visiting North Korea.
The former official said that anyone expecting overnight denuclearization “was not living on this planet.”
“For those of us who have actually participated in negotiations with North Korea and in any negotiations, all of these signs are interesting in that they might point at creating an atmosphere for some real movement forward,” said Wit, who co-founded the 38North project that analyzes North Korea activity.
At the end of June’s Singapore summit, Kim pledged to “work toward” denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. But Pence made clear this week that North Korea had not gone far enough.
“While the president has started a promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region,” Pence told American ambassadors gathered at the State Department.
That claim is at odds with Trump’s declaration hours after the conclusion of the Singapore summit that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
That Twitter announcement was widely derided, but experts say negotiations are a two-way street and in order to get North Korea to continue to engage in talks about denuclearization, the U.S. will need to offer something big in return.
“The North Koreans have expressed repeatedly the willingness to go down the road of denuclearization but not as a unilateral measure,” Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, told VICE News. ”Making progress will require the U.S. to present substantive measures as well. That is the point of negotiations. The goal of this next summit should be to figure out a few concrete next steps for both sides to continue down that road.”
Those “concrete steps” could be hammered out during this week’s round of meetings, but any substantive advances won’t be announced until the second Trump-Kim summit, in order to maximize media coverage.
And that media coverage is what experts claim Kim seeks above all, using Trump to boost his profile on the international stage while giving little back in return.
However, Wit says this is “an analysis by people who don't know much about North Korea.”
While he admits Kim does benefit from the global exposure of a summit, “there is a lot more going on here.”
“For anyone who has been following what Kim Jong Un has been saying and doing for the past year or so, they would see that there is something much more significant going on here, and that is a shift in the direction in which North Korea wants to head in the future, and that means much greater emphasis on economic development. And in that context, North Koreans understand that in order to make progress on that front, they need to put their nuclear weapons program on the negotiating table,” Wit said.
Cover image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (R) walks with US President Donald Trump (L) during a break in talks at their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)