“There is no detailed definition or shared agreement of what denuclearization entails....” These words were not from critics of ambivalence in the Trump administration’s nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Rather surprisingly, they were the words of the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, during his speech at Stanford University
last month. He had been asked whether the United States and North Korea had consensus on the technicality of the term “denuclearization.” Yet, this is only one of the many problematic ambiguities surrounding North Korean denuclearization.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will be shaking hands again in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27-28. In the past year, the two adversarial countries have striven—probably the most in the history of their relations—to move away from the brink of war toward intensive communications and diplomatic endeavors. Still, amidst widespread skepticism, Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea are often criticized in Washington and elsewhere for failing to produce adequate tangible deliverables on North Korean denuclearization. Even with a number of meaningful and voluntary gestures seemingly put toward denuclearization in the past year, North Korea has yet to give a clear indication of a firm decision to completely and entirely dismantle its nuclear capability. As Special Representative Biegun conveyed, progress on the nuclear front after the Singapore summit has been minimal, inviting criticism and greater skepticism regarding the upcoming summit and the Trump administration’s North Korea policy in general.
For this very reason, the Vietnam summit is all the more purposive. Trump and Kim must resolve the divergences and ambiguities implicit in their central questions, before they can make any meaningful progress toward denuclearization and whatever measures for the progress of denuclearization.