Will Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un Be the Unlikely Duo to End the Cold War? Vietnam Could Be Stage for Peace

President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un have arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where will they will bring their countries together in an attempt to once and for all put an end to the first and most enduring conflict of the Cold War.

The meeting—only the second of its kind in history—follows up the landmark Singapore summit in June 2018. Since then, both sides have expressed little public change in their respective stances, at times still seemingly worlds apart as they attempt to forge their denuclearization-for-peace deal. In recent days, however, Trump has discussed the prospects of "ultimately" seeing North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons and of being "in no particular rush"—signs that the second point of contention may be prioritized in the short-term.

In addition to sanctions relief, Kim is looking to secure an official declaration that the technically-ongoing war between the United States and its South Korean allies on one side and North Korea on the other, is over. Should a formal end be put to these hostilities, the likelihood of conflict is reduced and Kim may, in theory, no longer feel the need to argue in favor of maintaining the nuclear weapons his country has long said were necessary to its survival in the 21st century.

"I would argue history will be made in Hanoi, meaning a peace declaration is all but certain to be signed," Harry Kazianis, director of Korea Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told Newsweek. "Nothing could be more crucial for the long-term trajectory of U.S.-North Korea relations.

"If America is going to have any hope in convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, Washington needs to find a way to convince Pyongyang that it is serious about forging a new relationship and that decades of tension can finally end," he added. "There is only one way to do that: the signing of a peace declaration ending the Korean War once and for all."

A man fixes the electric line next to pictures of Vietnam, US and North Korean national flags in Hanoi, February 25, ahead of the second U.S.-North Korean summit. The three countries, all deeply involved in the 20th century's Cold War, may now contribute to ending its last active conflict once and for all. MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Vietnam, the venue for one of the U.S.'s most resounding 20th-century defeats at the hands of socialist forces that—like the Korean War—once brought together an uncomfortable communist alliance of China, North Korea and the Soviet Union, now stands as a rare beacon of hope that two of the most bitter ideological foes of the post–World War II period may reverse course. Hanoi has undergone dramatic reform since the war-torn 1970s, transforming its economic infrastructure to embrace a socialist-oriented mixed market and later courting South Korea and the U.S. in the 1990s.

As a result of the falling out between Vietnam and hardline North Korea, Kim Jong Un has become the first ruler of his country to visit since his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, last met his Vietnamese revolutionary counterpart, Ho Chi Minh, there in 1964. Accompanied by some of his most trusted aides, including his sister, Kim Jong Un has set out to do what even his legendary predecessors could not.

Trump, too, had his work cut out for him. Unlike his counterpart in Pyongyang, Trump faced a barrage of criticism from the media back at home, as well as the prospects of a one-term tenure that fell short of securing the denuclearization he had promised. Still, overwhelming skepticism that Kim would agree to any sort of unconditional or immediate denuclearization may be pushing his administration toward a more practical approach than at Singapore, which produced only a vague commitment to maintaining the dialogue.

"Trump must treat this second summit as more than a photo-op and stay on script," Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Newsweek. "Trump's negotiating team has rightly shifted the U.S. approach away from unrealistic demands that front-load North Korean concessions and appears willing to pursue incremental steps that test Kim's intentions to denuclearize in return for U.S. actions that address North Korea's concerns.

"It would be a significant step forward if Trump and Kim committed to pursue a step-by-step approach that trades concrete, verifiable actions that roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons program for limited sanctions relief and U.S. actions that contribute to peacebuilding in the region," she added.

Such a strategy could include a negotiated approach to closing down North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, where North Korea destroyed a cooling tower amid previous negotiations in 2008. Kim Jong Un has already detonated his main nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri, and has conducted limited dismantlement at other locations. Still, he has not committed to halting missile or nuclear production, and Davenport said that "it would be worthwhile for the United States to explore trading verifiable actions to shutter Yongbyon for limited sanctions relief or other steps that contribute to peacebuilding."

A signboard welcomes the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un at a South Korean restaurant in Tu Liem District, Hanoi, Vietnam, February 20. The two men feuded throughout 2017, only to enter into peace talks that produced the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit last June in Singapore. Linh Pham/Getty Images

The Trump administration has publicly discussed the possibility of agreeing to an end of war declaration, and it may just be enough to keep Kim Jong Un at the table. Davenport called "it a meaningful first step in signaling to Kim that North Korea's security concerns will be addressed as part of the negotiating process," adding that "an end of war declaration would also demonstrate U.S. support for South Korea and the inter-Korean dialogue."

In an increasingly common sign of unity between the two Koreas that fought a deadly three-year war in the 1950s, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has backed Kim Jong Un's calls for the U.S. to formally amend the ceasefire agreement to include a permanent cessation of hostilities. Speaking to The New York Times earlier this week about the potential for such a development, South Korean presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said, "The possibility is open."

"We still don't know exactly what format the end-of-war declaration will take, but there is an ample possibility of North Korea and the United States agreeing to such a declaration," he told the newspaper.

South Korea and North Korea have already begun to improve their long-damaged ties, holding a record three summits in the past year alone, breaking top-level diplomatic silence that followed the only two previous inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007. Moon has already pressed forward with joint projects, including the opening of a liaison office, the construction of a cross-border railroad and the parallel disarmament of what has long been the world's most heavily fortified border.

What Seoul has not done, however, is waive some of the unilateral sanctions it has maintained against Pyongyang since the 2010 sinking of South Korean Pohang-class corvette Cheonan, an act for which North Korea has denied responsibility. After South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told lawmakers in October that "a review [of the issue] is underway," Trump remarked to reporters that "they won't do that without our approval, they do nothing without our approval."

Michael Madden, a widely cited expert with contacts in North Korea, told Newsweek that "the most tangible sanctions relief they can get is to give South Korea the blessing to lift some of their unilateral sanctions." If the U.S. does not, he said, "South Korea will start turning toward China," which has championed warming inter-Korean ties and has hosted Kim Jong Un an unprecedented four times in the past year.

People wait behind barricades for the arrival of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 26. The summit has been hailed as another milestone in diplomacy, but both sides remain suspicious of one another's intentions. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Terry Roehrig, a professor at the Naval War College, also floated the idea of the U.S. approving South Korea repealing its sanctions, or even granting Seoul a potential exemption to sanctions drawn up by Washington. He also mentioned the end of war declaration, something he said that is "largely going to be a political gesture," but "it addresses that security concern" that Kim has about potential U.S. aggression. This fear was only exacerbated by the Trump administration's decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal last May.

Other possible measures could include a formal North Korean test freeze—something Kim informally announced last April, months after the last North Korean nuclear or missile test—and the establishment of a joint U.S.-North Korea liaison office, a plan Madden said could lay the groundwork for a future peace treaty and denuclearization plan.

Writing for the Stimson Center's 38 North project, International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow Michael Elleman also argued in favor of Trump setting a missile freeze as a goal, saying "the value the president assigns to the absence of nuclear and missile testing is not misplaced and supports a phased approach to denuclearization."

Still, many experts have cautioned against setting expectations too high or broad, with Roehrig explaining, "I remain skeptical that Kim will give up his nuclear weapons, but I think it's worth trying." He said this process still served to improve our "position in terms of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula from where we were 18 months ago," but "it's going to be a very long process," one in which he said both sides would be required to commit to real change.

"There's always this notion that when you have a negotiated settlement, that the U.S. gets everything it wants," Roehrig said. "That's not a negotiated settlement, that's coercion."