Questions swirl around Trump's North Korea summit

Questions are swirling about what, if anything, will be accomplished when President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week in Vietnam.

Senior administration officials have done little to clear up the questions, demurring on several specifics they said were still under negotiation with Pyongyang during a call with reporters to discuss the second summit between Trump and Kim.

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The officials did indicate a priority for the summit is reaching an agreed definition of denuclearization, something that has thus far eluded negotiators.

But outside observers say there’s little to indicate the gap has closed on that definition and are expecting at most modest gains in the effort to convince North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons.

Further, they caution, with Trump, there’s the possibility of unexpected concessions from the United States.

“If what comes out of this meeting next week are underwhelming concessions by the North Koreans, essentially, incremental and underwhelming concessions that attempt to resell the horse that they sold three times before, you know, the operative question for the summit then becomes what is the United States going to give up in return for those underwhelming concessions,” Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told reporters.

“I think this is where, you know, the president’s unpredictability, his impulsiveness, his inclination not to prepare for meetings could get us into trouble.”

Trump and Kim are scheduled to sit down in Hanoi starting Wednesday, which will be Tuesday night in Washington.

The format of the summit is expected to be similar to their first one in Singapore, officials said, with an “opportunity” for a one-on-one meeting, a meal and an expanded meeting with their aides.

At the first summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement in which North Korea pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Critics panned the statement for not including any steps on achieving that goal. Further, they said, it at best failed to define denuclearization and at worst acquiesced to the North Korean definition by mentioning the entire Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has long held that denuclearization includes the U.S. nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea.

As recently as December, North Korean media reaffirmed that any deal must include “completely removing the nuclear threats of the U.S.”

“I do not see us in the next week being able to bridge this gap unless we can also promise that we’re going to move troops, we’re going to also remove all, you know, everything that North Korea is talking about,” Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for Korea at CSIS, said on the think tank’s press call.

Last month, in a speech at Stanford University, Trump’s special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, acknowledged Washington and Pyongyang have “no detailed definition or shared agreement of what denuclearization entails.”

Biegun left for Hanoi this past Tuesday for final preparations for the summit, including nailing down what will be agreed to.

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In the administration’s background call, officials said the definition was still being negotiated by the advance teams in Hanoi, but that finding that “shared understanding” is one of the goals of the summit.

“That's one of the places where we think we can successfully build on the Singapore joint statements,” one of the officials said.

The administration also indicated Trump will seek to entice Kim with economic opportunities, with a second official saying Trump will discuss the “kind of futures that North Korea could enjoy if it follows through on its commitment.”

But the officials also appeared to be lowering expectations for the results of the summit.

“I don't know if North Korea has made the choice yet to denuclearize but the reason why we are engaged in this is because we believe there's a possibility that North Korea could make the choice to fully denuclearize and that is why the president has assigned such a priority to engaging with him,” the first official said.

Trump himself has appeared to be lowering expectation in the lead-up to Hanoi. Where once the administration wanted major progress on denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first term, Trump now says he is in “no rush” as long as Pyongyang refrains from nuclear and missile tests.

“As long as there’s not testing, I’m in no rush,” Trump said Tuesday. “If there’s testing, that’s another deal. But there has been no testing.”

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, who will be in Hanoi, said the outcome of the summit remains “in flux,” but that he’s expecting a four-part deal “if everything goes well.”

Those four pillars would include a peace declaration on the official end of the Korean War, liaison offices so Pyongyang and Washington can more easily communicate, a first step toward denuclearization and movement on the return of Korean War remains.

The peace declaration in particular has detractors who worry it would lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea and that Trump is rushing is rushing into it to win a Nobel prize.

Trump recently crowed that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nominated him for the prize, though it was reportedly done at the request of the White House.

Kazianis, though, argues a peace declaration is just a statement of fact that would lay the foundations for a more trusting relationship.

“It’s like fighting over if the sky is blue,” he said. “We all know the Korean War is over. There’s no weakness in admitting it.”

Trump could also potentially make a surprise offer. At the end of the Singapore summit, Trump unexpectedly announced he was suspending joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that he derided as overly costly “war games.”

While everyone is expecting Trump to do something unexpected, Kazianis said he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Kim who “pulls a rabbit out of his hat.” For example, South Korean media has speculated Kim may offer to turn over his intercontinental ballistic missiles to China as an interim measure in exchange for sanctions relief.

Cha said both Trump and Kim are well aware a summit without tangible results “will widely be seen as a failure and will really raise questions about whether this process has ended.”

Still, he said, some of the denuclearization steps that have been discussed, such as allowing international inspectors into certain sites, would be “nothing.”

For example, he said, the reactor at Yongbyon has been examined at least twice before, and the Punggye-ri the nuclear test site and Sohae satellite launch facility are both no longer used by the North Koreans.

“If U.S. inspectors are allowed to go into the now, this unused nuclear test site, there’s an argument that could be made that this has never been done before … or if they dismantle this one long-range satellite launch facility that this was actually the launch facility that North Korea tested a rocket that blew up the Obama ‘Leap Day Deal,’ then, again, the president could claim victory that no one else has done that,” Cha said.

“And he would be factually accurate in such a statement, but it would be materially irrelevant, given the size and scope of the program today.”