The second summit between the North Korean and American leaders begins today, Feb. 27, in Vietnam.* Denuclearization cannot go forward without a preliminary declaration of the end of the war.

We know Donald Trump to be an impulsive president. One used to gambling or tweeting first, then thinking later. On the eve of the second summit with Kim Jong Un, however, the occupant of the White House said that he was “look[ing] forward” to meeting his North Korean counterpart but was “in no particular rush” for ultimate denuclearization following the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s suspension of its nuclear tests on April 24, 2018. This approach is in sharp contrast to the strained atmosphere of recent months. After the June summit in Singapore, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, cancelled a trip to Pyongyang, as he was dissatisfied with not having obtained tangible evidence of a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” He then hardened sanctions even though the country is already under one of the strictest embargoes. How could it have been any different when the two countries can’t even agree on a definition of denuclearization and their first meeting only led to vague commitments without a detailed guide?

Two Koreas Hand in Hand

This is the crux of the second summit that starts today in Hanoi, Vietnam and will last for two days. The office of the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has been particularly active, putting forward a series of measures to gauge progress toward the denuclearization of the whole peninsula. Seoul, currently under the American nuclear umbrella, has so far refused to accept B61 types of tactical nuclear weapons as proposed by the Trump administration (between 1958 and 1991, Washington stationed hundreds of nuclear warheads in the South). Before last year’s meeting, President Moon asserted that “the destiny of the nation must be determined by” South Koreans. He went on to say that “no military action on the Korean Peninsula shall be taken without prior consent of the Republic of Korea” and that “the unfortunate past in which our destiny was determined against our will, such as colonial rule and national division, must never be allowed to recur.”

With this in mind, both Koreas have demonstrated their desire to take back control of their destinies without interference from major powers, progressing on a number of issues without the United States’ assistance. For example, the two former archrivals have initiated mine clearing along the border that former President Bill Clinton famously described as the “scariest place on earth,” and the most militarized in any case. Pyongyang and Seoul are also working on connecting the railways and highways to create one single transnational system, as well as on economic cooperation projects and most notably on power plants to tackle the North’s problems with energy supplies. The two capitals have also filed a request with UNESCO to have Traditional Korean Wrestling inscribed on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List and a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games.

Trump: Toward a Subtler Approach than ‘All or Nothing’

Trust remains the central question of the second summit between Kim and Trump. Will relations between Washington and Pyongyang evolve to the point where the North Korean power believes in a possible future without nuclear weapons and therefore, without external threat? After all, Stephen Biegun, the United States special representative for North Korea, insisted, “It is done. … We are not seeking to topple the regime.” Following the interventions in Iraq and Libya and the failed efforts to depose the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, the DPRK remains defiant. While a long-term goal, denuclearization cannot succeed without, at least, a preliminary declaration of the end of the war – one that is less legally restrictive than an official peace treaty. A declaration of this kind would also permit the appeasement of Pyongyang’s hardline partisans. That said, President Trump seems to have evolved toward a subtler approach than the “all or nothing” one which previously prevailed. If the United States would agree to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state – and nothing is less certain at this stage – the DPRK could then be pushed to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to promote the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency and even to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Pyongyang’s position seems to have similarly evolved, with Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korea’s main negotiators, having assured Trump that the DPRK “would not request the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea” as part of a peace agreement. A declaration of peace would be an advantage for Kim, legitimizing his power. Equally, for his South Korean counterpart, who has made the meeting one of the priorities of his term of office, the move toward a peace treaty would also allow him to silence conservatives. Aside from their antagonistic positions, they still have not come to terms with the 16 percent increase in the minimum wage and the change from 68 to 52 hours in the maximum legal working week. As for Trump, the stakes are still high in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, as his foreign policy is struggling to yield results. After he dedicated part of his State of the Union address to Korea, it is likely that the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, will demand concrete progress. If it leads to a peace agreement, Trump could then boast of having succeeded where all of his predecessors have come unstuck.

The move towards declaring an end to the war glosses over the other issues at play on the peninsula, notably those between China and the United States, engaged as they are in a serious trade war over who will take the global lead in the years to come. Kim confirmed last year before the Central Committee of the Worker's Party of Korea that his “new strategic policy line” was prioritizing economic development over military deployment. Therefore, the superpowers are now jostling to know who will have the most influence in this landscape where everything, more or less, remains to be seen. On Twitter, Trump alluded to a future that would not emerge without the United States, saying, “Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World.” He then went on to say that North Korea, due to “its location and people (and him) … has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation!” It must not be forgotten, however, that China and Russia also have multiple projects on the table that are only awaiting the lifting of sanctions. As well as potential resources of zinc, magnesium, copper and iron, there already exists a railway project that links North Korea to China, Russia and Europe. Moscow, like Beijing, is invested in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones and since 2011 has envisaged a gas pipeline traveling from Siberia to South Korea opening up the whole of the peninsula. Pyongyang understands perfectly well how to exploit these rivalries in order to get the most from the major powers.

*Editor's note: The summit adjourned on Feb. 28 without an agreement.