U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may view the second summit planned for February 27-28 in Hanoi as a mutual affirmation of strength, in which Trump gives Kim further international legitimacy and Kim reinforces Trump’s view that he alone has been courageous enough to meet Kim and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. But despite both leaders’ desire to highlight their own achievements, the summit’s outcome may be determined more by the ability of each side to respond to each other’s weaknesses than by the ability to project strength.
At the Singapore summit, North Korea insisted that Kim was meeting Trump from a position of strength, based on accomplishments resulting from an accelerated schedule of nuclear and missile testing. On the other hand, the Trump administration portrayed Kim as desperate, arguing that massive pressure worked and that an ultimatum would be sufficient to compel North Korea’s comprehensive denuclearization. These conflicting assumptions have perpetuated a deadlock rather than the launching of a diplomatic process of synched up quid pro quos that support the objectives of peace and denuclearization.
The months since the Singapore Trump-Kim summit have been characterized by stalemate rather than progress, raising speculation that Trump is seeking a photo op, has oversold his progress with Kim, and/or is trying to distract from mounting political troubles at home. Both leaders benefit from lowered expectations, and it will take only a small agreement and the start of the process for both men to declare victory. The biggest concern among many analysts is that Trump has become so desperate for a win that any deal with Kim will do.
For his part, Kim Jong-un in his 2019 New Year’s address built on North Korea’s underlying narrative of leadership strength. Kim emphasized practical steps toward achieving economic development while doubling down on his determination to improve North Korea’s relationship with the U.S. He has also graciously offered to restart inter-Korean economic development projects without preconditions, knowing that most of those projects are blocked by UN sanctions.
But despite Kim’s effort to project strength in advance of a critical second encounter with Trump, we cannot be completely sure whether Kim’s outreach to the U.S. stems from strength or weakness. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign peaked last year, but its lingering impact may still be sufficient to hamstring aspects of North Korea’s economic development campaign. Otherwise, why would North Korea be so insistent on economic sanctions relief as a central objective of its diplomatic outreach?
So far, North Korea’s denuclearization strategy has been America-first–as in “America, you move first.” As part of this strategy, North Korea has made superficial gestures but resisted U.S. demands and waited for the value of the U.S. offer to go up. Despite positive leader-level signaling, U.S. sanctions have continued to strengthen under the surface and North Korea has expressed frustration that it has not received more benefits from the U.S. post-Singapore. North Korea has put all its chips on Trump, but unless the leaders’ personal relationship is accompanied by government-to-government talks, it will be impossible to overcome mutually hostile relations between the two countries.
Going forward, North Korea must consider Trump’s weaknesses and decide whether the bet on Trump is overvalued, and whether the chance to transform the relationship might be squandered on negotiations with the wrong counterpart. As the next U.S. election nears and Trump faces mounting political woes at home, Kim may be tempted to lock in gains with the U.S. by taking big steps toward denuclearization and improvement of the U.S.-North Korea relationship. Or he could sit tight instead, wait Trump out, and bank on using the downtime to secure North Korea’s status as a nuclear state by default.
On the other hand, Kim may face increasing pressure at home stemming from the revolution of rising expectations generated by North Korean market reforms and his own emphasis on economic development. The external pressure generated by mutual hostility with the U.S. and by UN sanctions constrains Kim’s plans and blocks the investment inflows necessary for North Korea to achieve true prosperity. For Kim, only reconciliation with the U.S. can remove the biggest obstacles preventing North Korea’s economic prosperity. Thus, a valuable U.S. bargaining chip is its ability to offer a peace process in exchange for steps toward denuclearization, and it should use that leverage wisely.
Trump and Kim are already committed to making their second meeting a strength-affirming success, but the tangible outcomes may depend on the ability of each side to effectively address the weaknesses of the other.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.