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U.S. President Donald Trump is going to have to offer North Korea's Kim Jong Un more concessions at their upcoming summit if he wants the reclusive state to make any real progress on denuclearization, political strategists say.
The two leaders are due to meet in Vietnam at the end of February in what will be their second meeting in under a year. Since their first face-to-face sit-down last June in Singapore, fears of a full-blown crisis on the Korean Peninsula have eased as Pyongyang makes goodwill gestures such as closing its Tongchang-ri and Punggye-ri missile sites — areas that aren't critical to the current nuclear program — as well as returning U.S. hostages.
While Trump takes credit for averting war with Pyongyang, the country has yet to take concrete steps toward eliminating its weapons arsenal. In fact, numerous reports indicate that Kim's administration continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile program through ongoing production of rockets, warheads and fissile material.
Washington wants the North to provide full details of its weapons and missile program, including the size and locations of storage sites, as well as international access, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, said in a speech last week. Kim, however, has made clear that he will only negotiate on a phased framework that requires Washington to offer concessions in sequence with and in proportion to whatever Pyongyang does.
For example, Kim has offered to destroy all facilities in Yongbyon, the country's primary nuclear site, if Washington takes reciprocal measures. Such actions could include withdrawing American troops from South Korea or a formal treaty to end the Korean War. According to experts, however, those steps are far too risky and Trump should instead pursue other options.
The White House must "see whether [Kim] is prepared to depart from the traditional Kim family playbook in return for economic incentives, diplomatic normalization, and security guarantees that would convince him that his regime could survive even without nuclear weapons," analysts at American think tank Atlantic Council said in a Wednesday note.
Washington could offer to roll back some U.S. sanctions, reduce the size and frequency of U.S. military exercises in South Korea and create small liaison offices to promote the eventual normalization of bilateral relations, analysts at political consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a note.
Regarding the possibility of a peace treaty, Trump is likely "to stress that possibility without firmly committing to it," they added. Troop removals in South Korea, meanwhile, aren't realistic at this stage as Seoul just agreed this week to pay more for the U.S. military presence, they continued.
The action-for-action style of negotiating has long defined North Korea's interactions with the international community. Previous rulers have promised nuclear disarmament more than once in exchange for economic concessions and aid, only to repeatedly backtrack on commitments. But this time could be different given Kim's desire to open up his country.
If Kim wants a more dynamic economy, he needs to gain international credit as well as set up a proper legal system and commercial arbitration, said Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow specializing in security at the Atlantic Council.
That's where U.S. bargaining power comes in, Manning argued. Washington can facilitate the North's integration into the global economic system by promising talks with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization in addition to offering professional training for North Korean lawyers and accountants, he said.
Washington also has leverage concerning Kim's desire for foreign investment. Offers such as South Korea's joint transport links and the re-opening of the Kaesong industrial complex can only materialize once U.S. or U.N. sanctions on Kim's regime are lifted. Otherwise, companies involved in construction could face financial consequences.
To that end, Manning recommended that Trump's administration "get a new UN Security Council Resolution offering to suspend some UN sanctions corresponding to progress in denuclearization, but with a snap-back provision so if North Korea cheats or fails to implement steps, full UN sanctions are restored."
However, there is always the risk of any U.S. concession being matched by an underwhelming North Korean response.
The North could make "token concessions on things they don't really need anymore" such as closing plutonium nuclear facilities or old test launch sites," warned Sean King, senior vice president of Park Strategies.