Episode 2 of “Trump Meets Kim” looks set for February 27-28 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Statements from recent talks between high-level US and North Korean officials ahead of the meeting witnessed Kim Jong-un complimenting President Trump on his “positive way of thinking”. Rhetorical flourishes aside, whether the second Trump-Kim summit will be successful depends on what Washington is willing to give away to catalyse a response from North Korea, and what Pyongyang gives away in return. Yet Seoul and Beijing remain key actors, too. The outcome of the Singapore summit paled in comparison to what was anticipated. Amid the optics of the event came a declaration that contained words Pyongyang has been using even before Kim Jong-un took power: “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Go back to the inter-Korean Joint Declaration of the Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in 1992, and we see the same phrase. When the term reappeared on June 12 2018, Pyongyang knew it could simply preach, but not practise, to “denuclearise”. In a KCNA commentary in December, Pyongyang clarified that denuclearisation meant “removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted”. For Washington, it is still complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement. Trump confirms second meeting with Kim will be in Hanoi For there to be progress in Vietnam, this definitional impasse must be overcome. Step one consists of North Korea’s full declaration of its nuclear arsenal, bases, facilities and fissile material – those known to us, and, crucially, those unknown – and history has seen that Pyongyang excels in dishonest declarations. A declaration is a big ask, but nuclear disarmament, if it commences, is going to be a long-term process by its very nature. Yet, the likelihood of this bold – let alone honest – move is low. Meetings between US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and officials from the two Koreas have been praised by the Swedish government as “constructive”, comprising discussions on “economic development and long-term engagement” among Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang. We must, however, avoid conflating the issues of engagement and denuclearisation. With engagement comes incentives to catalyse denuclearisation on the part of Pyongyang, of which two significant concessions would be the easing of economic sanctions, and the suspension of joint US-South Korean military exercises. A smaller possibility is the opening of liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang. Yet, even if Trump and Kim agreed to this, the question remains whether it would lead to any concrete movement on denuclearisation. Ahead of second Kim-Trump summit, North Korea sings praises of its national flag A vital question is what the US is willing to concede to win reciprocal measures from North Korea. Trump’s suspension of annual US-South Korea military exercises for 2018 (though smaller-scale drills continued), was a big “gift”, something for which Pyongyang has always been waiting. What if Trump decides to reduce the US troop presence in South Korea, or declare a formal end to the Korean war? Notwithstanding the legal complications of a peace treaty, this is a monumental concession. An end-of-war treaty gives North Korea more rationale to demand the ousting of US conventional forces from its neighbour to the south, and creates another wedge in the US-South Korea alliance. We must not forget that North Korea has not given up anything substantial in its nuclear realm, so far. After Singapore, Pyongyang dismantled an engine test stand at the Sohae satellite launching station in July. But if the US treats such concessions – involving nuclear facilities of little use to North Korea, and promises that can be easily reneged – as evidence of a “commitment” to denuclearisation, such pledges are likely to continue emerging from Pyongyang. North Korea hides weapons at airports and sanctions have been ineffective, UN says In his new year address last month, Kim said Pyongyang would “neither make or test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them”. But North Korea has constantly reiterated the need for the US to take “corresponding measures”. North Korea sees itself as a de facto nuclear power, and nuclear weapons are crucial to its domestic legitimacy. Pyongyang perceives it unnecessary for constant nuclear testing and missile launches – the last nuclear and missile tests were in September and November 2017 – if they believe they have attained their “treasured sword” of nuclear status. What about China? China – as well as Russia – has long opposed the severity of UN economic sanctions on North Korea, and wants peace on the peninsula. While the “lips and teeth” relationship may not have always been tight over the past few years, the reassertion of the Beijing-Pyongyang friendship has been prominent: three visits by Kim in 2018, one already in 2019, and a continuation of high-level dialogue. A recent visit by a North Korean state musical troupe to Beijing was not only an act of cultural diplomacy: it was preceded by talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and senior North Korean official Ri Su-yong. The “important consensus on the development of China-DPRK party-to-party and state-to-state relations”, as Chinese state media announced, was a clear signal to the US. Resolving the problem of North Korea is not limited to bilateral US-North Korea dialogue. Indeed, If Trump reduces, or even removes, US conventional presence in Seoul, or announces a suspension or halt to US-South Korea military exercises, Beijing – as well as Pyongyang – will be smiling. Does President Trump realise the herculean task ahead? His Twitter diplomacy has moved from exclamations that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat” to speculation of a “decent chance of denuclearisation” at the end of January. Cautious optimism should be the way forward, while not denying that we are seeing progress – albeit not related to denuclearisation – in terms of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, the two Koreas, and Beijing as North Korea’s elder brother. Perhaps the key is in what Robert Carlin, a former senior policy adviser to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, said recently. Decades of deviance and superficial compliance with the international norms by North Korea have taught us to read between the lines. To “wing” any “deal” with North Korea, as Trump exclaimed before the Singapore summit, is an injustice to the task that lies ahead. Edward Howell is an ESRC scholar in international relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula.