From Vietnam, an Analysis of the US-North Korea Summit

The U.S.-North Korea summit is under way. We hear from The Heritage Foundation’s Olivia Enos, who’s on site for the summit in Vietnam. Listen to the interview in the podcast or read the transcript below. Plus: The Methodists, which are America’s third-largest religious body, just reaffirmed their opposition to same-sex marriage. Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a Methodist himself, joins us to discuss.

We also cover these stories:

  • President Donald Trump criticized his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who had an explosive congressional hearing Wednesday, saying Cohen was “lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
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  • The conservative group Citizens United is offering $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of two men who, allegedly, assaulted a conservative recruiter on the U.C. Berkeley campus.

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This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available on the podcast.

Katrina Trinko: Joining us today is Olivia Enos, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst who focuses on foreign policy. She’s actually in Vietnam for the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Now, just to be clear, we are recording this during the summit itself because of the time difference.

Olivia, before we get into the summit, I just wanted to ask you: What is the scene like in Vietnam? Are there a million reporters? Where is this meeting taking place? What is it like there?

Olivia Enos: The press pool is really large and there’s a lot of energy in Hanoi. It seems as though the Vietnamese government has essentially recharacterized itself or rebranded itself as this city where peace happens.

As you walk down the street there are all of these the flags. There’s the North Korea flag next to the Vietnamese flag next to the American flag, which, to be totally honest, is pretty jarring.

There are a lot of different signs that talk about Vietnam and Hanoi in particular as the “peaceful city.” It seems like Vietnam itself is really trying to set itself up as a place where “peace” can take place. It seems like the administration is moving toward signing a peace declaration, which is fairly concerning for a number of reasons that I’m happy to go into.

Daniel Davis: Well, that’s particularly interesting given that 40, 50 years ago we were locked in a war with Vietnam, a communist power, which we might compare with North Korea today. Is there anything symbolic in that? Is Vietnam trying to send a message to North Korea about what they could be in the future?

Enos: There’s definitely a deep desire both on the Vietnamese side as well as the U.S. side to communicate that Vietnam is the potential future for North Korea, and the president himself has made statements that North Korea could really experience economic transformation very quickly if it does make concessions on the nuclear front and on other areas.

There’s definitely been an attempt to draw those parallels much in the same way that there was an attempt to draw those parallels in Singapore.

It’s important to bear in mind that both Vietnam and Singapore still bear the signature traits of a pseudo authoritarianism and the relics of that authoritarian rule are definitely very present. Even in the architecture here in Vietnam, which is really fascinating.

… I think it’s hard to make the argument that North Korea, which is so far behind the rest of the world, could really catch up very quickly.

Trinko: Let’s talk about the summit itself. What, leading into this, and I know we’ve already had the first dinner, were the main topics of conversation that were expected to come up?

Enos: A lot of speculation ahead of the summit. There are about four pillars that people anticipate will be raised.

The first, as I mentioned earlier, is this notion of signing a peace declaration. The second is that there would be an opening of potentially liaison offices between the U.S. and North Korea. This would be like one step below an embassy to hopefully facilitate additional dialogue.

The third would be the continuation of the return of the remains of American POWs from the Korean War. The fourth would be an exchange dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for inter-Korean economic engagement or some form of relief in sanctions.

I would say that perhaps the most concerning of those four options are the potential for a peace declaration, which, as Heritage expert Bruce Klingner has written on in great detail, has the potential to really sacrifice the strength of the South Korean alliance.

Even though signing a peace declaration isn’t the same as signing a peace treaty, it sort of kicks the can down the road where there’s the potential for U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea, and, frankly, North Korea as well. Nothing more than to have the U.S. no longer on the Korean Peninsula, but that would really sacrifice a key cornerstone of U.S. strategy in Asia.

The second concerning aspect is this notion of potential sanctions that we’ve seen on the table. Frankly, the administration cannot legally remove a whole host of sanctions until North Korea actually denuclearizes, and even beyond that cannot lift sanctions unless North Korea makes improvements on human rights grounds.

I think that the administration is really fighting within itself as to whether or not it’s going to maintain that maximum pressure strategy, and, frankly, I think that the best outcome for the summit would be a return to requesting that North Korea actually has complete, verifiable irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program, taking steps toward that, and that the U.S. maintain that maximum pressure strategy if and until that happens.

Davis: Just on that point of denuclearization, it’s my understanding that the two sides don’t even agree on what that would mean or what the word “denuclearize” means. Can you explain that for us?

Enos: Yeah. In Singapore the two countries agreed to complete denuclearization, which …. means denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, and in their mind that includes the U.S. nuclear assets that are used to protect South Korea in the event of a war.

That’s an entirely untenable definition. The U.S. is not going to be giving up its legitimate nuclear weapons that do comply with international law. That definition really isn’t even workable.

The reality is that the two countries should not be going down the path that the administration has talked about, which is this new definition of denuclearization, final, fully verifiable denuclearization, but really should stick to what the U.N. sanctions require, which is complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, not denuclearization, dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program.

That terminology, that term of art is really important because it identifies North Korea explicitly as the one who has to dismantle their program, and it needs to complete an irreversible as verifiable.

Trinko: To take a step back, it’s a little jarring, at least for me, to see these pictures of President Trump and Kim Jong Un smiling and having dinner. But at the same time, of course, this is diplomacy. You’re an expert in foreign policy. … How do relationships between countries change based on these face-to-face meetings? Why is this necessary?

Enos: I think it’s interesting because both sanctions and diplomacy share similar ends. You engage in sanctions efforts because you want to shift a country’s risk calculus in such a way that it actually transforms behavior.

Diplomacy, if used well, can have the exact same outcome, but it has to be measured, and, in my opinion, it has to correspond with the sanctions policy that you had before.

I think one of the unfortunate things about the diplomatic efforts so far is that it seems like there’s actually a mismatch between what the legal requirements are of the sanctions and the way in which the administration has pursued diplomacy.

Diplomacy has been very unilateral, focused only on denuclearization issues, not focused on the host of other issues, human rights issues in particular, but also other issues, including North Korea’s designation of the primary money laundering concern and North Korea’s designation of the state-sponsored terrorism that, frankly, Kate and Daniel, if North Korea only denuclearizes, they can’t list all of the sanctions for these other areas.

If North Korea actually seeks to be sanctions-free and no longer have that type of pressure on it, then we have to make diplomatic forward movement on these other issues as well.

I think that’s really critical going forward, and I certainly think that there’s a place for diplomacy, but we have to be very careful as we consider which concessions we make at that time.

Davis: Well, President Trump has held out to North Korea the potential for them to become an economic powerhouse, and he’s spoken very glowingly in those terms. Is that a realistic possibility in the future?

Enos: You know, I think if you look at a lot of countries around the globe, there have been former despotic regimes that have fundamentally transformed and have a free and open economy.

Of course people point to the economic and political transformation of South Korea itself, but conditions were quite different when South Korea opened.

I think it’s not likely that you’re going to see a fundamental economic transformation in North Korea in the near term, but I think that if North Korea was willing to address some of these foreign and human rights issues and also actually make some of those concessions that make it so that they comply with international law, comply with sanctions, maybe they could start on a path toward that.

Maybe Kim Jong Un, he’s only 33, I think, years old. Maybe he’s thinking about playing a long game, but I think the early indicators, both from the Singapore summit and here in Hanoi suggest that … I don’t know that he’s a major reformer, although some certainly speculate that he is.

Trinko: You mentioned South Korea of course is going to be watching these talks rather anxiously. What about China and other players in the region? Japan. What do you think they’re hoping to see or not see come out of this, and how could this affect them?

Enos: That’s a great question, Kate. I think that China in particular has a very fraught relationship with the events that unfold in the Korean Peninsula.

China is North Korea’s only diplomatic ally, but it also doesn’t want to see instability within Asia, and potential humanitarian or refugee crisis threatens the stability of China, which prizes their own internal stability and sovereignty over pretty much everything else in their foreign policy.

China always plays this bizarre good cop-bad cop role with North Korea, and it will be interesting to see what that role exactly looks like. I don’t think that China really wants North Korea to be a nuclear power over the long term, but I think it’s not exactly clear as to whether or not it wants to eliminate North Korea’s attack, because North Korea is a bright, shiny object that distracts from all of the bad behavior that China itself is engaging in. I think it’s not a straightforward role that it plays.

I think Japan, as an ally of the United States, has a strong interest in seeing North Korea not only denuclearize, but they have personal domestic issues surrounding the myriad Japanese inductees who have been held there, so that is of concern to Japan. And I think they’ll continue to support the U.S., but they have a difficult relationship with South Korea that also complicates how they relate to the North Korean crisis.

Of course, there’s Russia, too. Russia gets very little … I think it’s paid little lip service in the overall debate and I think it’s because we’re not exactly sure what role Russia will play over the long term in the North Korean crisis. A lot of interesting regional dynamics going on.

Davis: Lastly, Olivia, human rights abuses in North Korea have been an element of this from the beginning, but since the Singapore summit we haven’t heard much at all from the Trump administration on that front. You’ve devoted a lot of your focus to human rights in North Korea. What would you hope to see on that front out of this summit?

Enos: I would really love to see the administration recognizing that human rights issues and advancing those issues in fact benefit the long-term goals and objectives of the U.S. when it comes to denuclearization.

I really believe that these issues are interlinked, in particular free labor in North Korean political prison camps is free labor for the regime’s nuclear missile program. And, in fact, there are reports that individuals have chemical and biological weapons tested on them as prisoners in these camps, and same thing with, unfortunately, mentally challenged individuals as well as kotjebi, or street children, in North Korea.

I think that there would be a lot of benefits to raising the human rights concerns at this upcoming summit, and I think there are small tests of North Korea’s sincerity that could be implemented.

For one thing, the U.S. could request that the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Food Program be granted access to provide humanitarian aid to the neediest individuals who are in those political prison camps.

Or, perhaps, they could ask for the release of women, children, and the elderly from those political prison camps [inaudible 00:14:13] they don’t serve any sort of threat to the regime.

I think that the human rights abuses and holding North Korea accountable, it’s in the American way to promote freedom as well as promote our own national interests, and I believe in the North Korean case we don’t have to choose between promoting interests versus values. We can do both. Hopefully that’s what we’ll see when we conclude our dialogue at this second historic summit here in Hanoi.

Trinko: Thanks so much for joining us, Olivia. I appreciate you calling despite the 12-hour time difference. I hope you get a chance to relax some. I saw one of the news reports said there’s also a North Korea-United States cocktail being sold in Vietnam.

Enos: Yes!

Trinko: Maybe enjoy one of those.

Enos: Sounds great.

Trinko: Thanks, Olivia.

Enos: Thank you so much.

Source material can be found at this site.

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