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N. Korea-US summit likely by October in a third country: experts

With prospects of a second summit between North Korea and the US cautiously growing, the leaders of the two countries would likely sit down for talks in a third country by October, if the meeting takes place, analysts say. 

Foreign policy experts interviewed by The Korea Herald all said that the summit is likely to take place by mid-October, as both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump would like to use the meeting to appeal to their domestic audiences.

Trump, who is embroiled in political turmoil at home amid recent revelations from the new book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” needs a public image makeover before pivotal midterm elections in November. Kim also needs a breakthrough in stalled negotiations with the US to push forward with his new goal of developing his country’s economy, according to the analysts.

The White House said Monday it is already in the process of coordinating a second meeting between the leaders after Trump received a “very warm, very positive” letter from Kim.   

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12. (Reuters)
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12. (Reuters)

As for the date, the summit could be held in October after the inter-Korean summit planned for next week and the South Korea-US summit scheduled for late September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. 

“The deadlock in the denuclearization talks pose a hurdle to both Trump and Kim. Trump has the midterm election coming up and Kim needs an achievement in the process of shifting his policy focus to economic development,” said Kim Dong-yup, professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.

“Given their political schedules, they both need to hold the summit quickly,” he said.

Cho Han-bum, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the meeting will likely take place by mid-October, after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s possible visit to Pyongyang.

“Following the inter-Korean meeting, and South Korea-US meeting, Pompeo will travel to Pyongyang to finalize their deal. The US-North Korea summit will be held after that,” he said. “By the time they meet up, North Korea would have to be ready to make a concession and the US to declare an end to the war in return.”

The US State Department said it is not preparing for Pompeo to visit Pyongyang for now. Trump earlier canceled Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, citing “insufficient progress” in denuclearization talks.

Talks on North Korea’s dismantlement of its nuclear program have been in a stalemate since the meeting between Kim and Trump in June in Singapore, with the US and North Korea divided over the sequence of denuclearization.

But they have kept momentum for dialogue alive. North Korea’s low-key military parade on the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, which Trump hailed as “positive,” as well as South Korean envoys’ visit to Pyongyang last week heightened expectations for progress in their stalled talks.

Speculations are surfacing here that the US and North Korea are working on a road map for North Korea’s denuclearization -- the US agreeing to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War in return for the North’s promise to provide a list of its nuclear weapons program and accept an inspection from outside experts.

“Despite positive indicators for the US’ economy, Trump’s popularity remains low,” said Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute. 

“Though the North Korea issue is not a decisive factor in the midterm election, Trump would want to use the summit with North Korea to improve his image as the leader of the US," he said.

But there is still a possibility of the summit not taking place, depending on the results of the inter-Korean summit next week. The summit is expected to offer a clue as to how far the North is willing to make concessions to the US on the denuclearization front, according to analysts.

While the experts agreed the summit would take place in October, they differed on where the meeting would be held. Possible venues mentioned are inter-Korean border village Panmunjom, Washington, Pyongyang or a third country like Singapore.

“If Trump wants to use the summit to suit his political agenda, he might consider pushing to hold it in Washington and promote his achievement to his domestic audience,” Woo said. “But it would be difficult to do so, given lingering skepticism at home about negotiations with the North.”

Shin Beom-chul, senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, also echoed the view, saying it is politically “too risky” to hold a summit in their backyard without a guarantee for major progress.

“There should be major progress or concessions from both sides if the leaders decide to meet up in Pyongyang or in Washington,” he said, adding that there seems to be no progress in narrowing the gap between the US and North Korea over what should come first in the denuclearization process.

“I think Singapore would be a safe choice, given a lack of time for preparations for the summit,” he said. 

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