SEOUL, South Korea — President Trump arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday to discuss denuclearization with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, capping off months of threats and weapons tests, recriminations and rapprochements.
As the men prepared to meet for the second time in eight months, their avowed goal of achieving a lasting peace and “complete denuclearization” remained elusive, but the once-imminent threat of war felt even more removed.
Fear of war gripped the Korean Peninsula in 2017 after a series of North Korean missile tests prompted Mr. Trump to threaten that country with “fire and fury.” Mr. Kim responded with what appeared to be a successful test of a hydrogen bomb and launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that it said was powerful enough to reach the continental United States.
After the two leaders met in June, tensions eased dramatically — the North stopped testing weapons, and the United States halted military exercises with the South. But the leaders did not iron out a clear path to denuclearization.
A vaguely worded agreement
After meeting Mr. Kim in Singapore, Mr. Trump said he “fell in love” with the North Korean leader and vowed to secure a “bright future” for the North, should it disarm.
Despite the fanfare, the meeting yielded only a vaguely worded joint statement composed of four broad agreements:
• The United States and North Korea would establish “new” relations.
• They would “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
• North Korea would “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
• And North Korea and the United States would recover the remains of American soldiers killed in the North during the Korean War.
The sticking points
North Korea returned the remains of what were believed to be 55 American servicemen killed in combat between 1950 and 1953. But there has been little progress toward the goal of denuclearization.
The negotiators have faced the same thorny issues that have doomed all previous attempts at ridding the North of its nuclear weapons.
What is “denuclearization”?
The United States and North Korea have yet to agree on what “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” entails.
Washington wants the “final, fully verifiable” dismantlement of all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, fissile materials and production facilities. But North Korea has indicated, at times, that it will not give up its nuclear deterrent until the United States removes its 28,500 troops from South Korea and keeps its long-range bombers, aircraft carriers and other nuclear-capable military assets away from the peninsula.
How quickly would the deal take effect?
The Singapore agreement was not the first time North Korea had committed to denuclearization and then dragged its feet. This time, Washington wants the North to commit to a specific timeline so that it won’t string out the process indefinitely.
What comes first, American concessions or the North’s disarmament?
Both sides have exchanged lists of what they expect the other to do to implement the Singapore deal. The North’s list is long. It wants the United States to lift sanctions; replace the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War with a peace treaty; normalize diplomatic ties; provide economic aid; and, possibly, withdraw its troops from South Korea.
The real difficulty comes in figuring out what actions and rewards are mutually acceptable and the order in which they should be deployed. North Korea insists on moving “in phases” toward complete denuclearization to ensure that Washington delivers “action-for-action” steps to keep its end of the bargain.
How would the North be kept honest?
Washington has demanded that North Korea declare the locations and other details of its entire nuclear inventory and allow for international inspections. North Korea has said it will not do that until it knows it can trust the Americans. Past talks between the two sides collapsed over this difference.
Cutting a deal
Analysts say North Korea would never give up its nuclear arsenal in a quick, one-shot deal, but would instead insist on a series of concessions.
In any deal, the North’s first priority is putting an end to punishing international sanctions that limit the country’s ability to import oil and export its goods, including coal and seafood.
American negotiators, who do not want to give away their best bargaining chip, may offer noneconomic incentives instead.
Here’s what is up for discussion:
• South Korean officials indicated this week that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim could agree on a joint political statement declaring an official end to the Korean War. The North and the United States have remained technically at war since combat was halted with an armistice in 1953.
• The era of “new” relations proposed in Singapore could include the opening of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The offices would act as de facto embassies and would be the first such diplomatic missions established in either country. In September, South and North Korea opened a joint liaison office as a possible step toward opening embassies in each capital.
• North Korea has offered to permanently dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility, a key site for producing fuel for nuclear warheads, in exchange for concessions. The proposal falls short of what American officials have demanded — a complete abandonment of the North’s nuclear and missile programs — but it would help keep the North’s nuclear arsenal from expanding, at least temporarily.
• North Korea has indicated it will not dismantle its weapons program until the United States agrees to diminish its military capacity in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula, which could include withdrawing troops or keeping away nuclear-capable jets and ships. As a first step, North Korea could demand that Washington continue to suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea in the coming years, and even reduce its military presence there.
• If the United States is unwilling to ease sanctions, North Korea could push for the reopening of inter-Korean economic projects that have been suspended in recent years.