Singapore to Hanoi: The winding road since first Trump-Kim summit

Eight months later and more than 2,200km further north, Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is gearing up to host the second encounter between the leaders of North Korea and the United States following their unprecedented summit last year in Singapore.

With preparations for the February 27-28 meeting under way, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are under growing pressure to produce this time a detailed and unambiguous agreement – unlike the statement they signed in Singapore that was widely seen as “vague” and resulted in little tangible progress.

A week before the much-anticipated second summit, here’s an in-depth look at what has happened since Kim and Trump last came face-to-face – and what hasn’t.

June 12, 2018: The two leaders make history by holding the first-ever summit between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.

The meeting in Singapore, which comes after months of escalating tensions marked by nuclear and missile tests, new sanctions and “fire and fury” rhetoric, yields a short-on-details statement in which Kim and Trump outline four commitments without a specific timeline: establishing “new relations” for peace and prosperity; building a “lasting a stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”; working “toward denuclearisation”; and recovering and repatriating the remains of soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Shortly after the summit, Trump surprises US and South Korean officials by telling a news conference that Washington will suspend military drills with South Korea, calling war games “expensive” and “provocative”. The US president also says he wants “at some point” to withdraw his country’s troops currently in South Korea.

June 13, 2018: Arriving back in the US, Trump declares North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat.

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, state media claims it was a victorious meeting, with newspapers splashing photos of Kim standing side-by-side with Trump on the world stage.

June 19, 2018: Kim arrives in China, North Korea’s main ally, for a two-day visit to brief the Chinese leadership on his summit with Trump.

June 21, 2018: Kyodo news agency reports that Japan has decided to halt drills to prepare for a North Korean missile attack in the wake of the Singapore summit, which is welcomed by the Japanese government as a first step towards the denuclearisation of North Korea.

June 22, 2018: Trump claims North Korea is “blowing up” four of its big test sites and that a process of “total denuclearisation … has already started”. The US president does not specify which test sites he is referring to, while US officials reportedly say there is no evidence of new moves to dismantle any sites since the Singapore summit.

Trump, however, extends sanctions against North Korea for one year, saying the country still poses an “extraordinary threat”.

Meanwhile, officials from North and South Korea agree to arrange reunions for families separated by the Korean War from August 20 to August 26. The last reunions were held in October 2015.

June 27, 2018: Nuclear monitor 38 North says Pyongyang continues to carry out rapid improvements on its nuclear research facility despite declaring it is committed to the peninsula’s denuclearisation at the Singapore summit. The website says recent satellite imagery shows operations are continuing at the main Yongbyon nuclear site and infrastructure work is also being carried out.

June 30, 2018: NBC News reports that US intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons in recent months and that Kim is trying to deceive the US in order to extract more concessions. The intelligence assessment reportedly shows that North Korea has upped uranium enrichment while engaging in diplomacy with the US.

July 7, 2018: After high-level talks in Pyongyang, North Korean and US officials give opposing accounts of how the discussions went. North Korea accuses the US of making “gangster-like” demands in the talks over its nuclear programme, contradicting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hours after he left the North Korean capital saying the two countries had made progress “on almost all of the central issues”.

July 12, 2018: A document seen by news agencies says the US has filed a complaint to the UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee, accusing Pyongyang of breaching a UN sanctions cap on refined petroleum by making illicit transfers between ships at sea, and demanding an immediate end to all sales of the fuel.

July 13, 2018: South Korean President Moon Jae-in urges Trump and Kim to try harder to achieve a breakthrough, saying they will “face the stern judgment of the international community” if their promises on denuclearisation are not kept.

July 27, 2018: The White House says North Korea is returning the suspected remains of 55 soldiers killed during the Korean War, as part of the agreement reached in Singapore.

July 30, 2018: Reuters news agency quotes a senior US official as saying that spy satellites have detected renewed activity at the Sanum-dong research facility, the North Korean factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US. The Washington Post meanwhile reports that North Korea appears to be building one or two new liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missiles at the large facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang, citing unidentified officials.

August 3, 2018: A confidential UN report says North Korea continues to develop its nuclear programme and is violating international sanctions by clandestinely transferring weapons and fuel. “[North Korea] has not stopped its nuclear and missile programmes and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018,” it says.

August 4, 2018: At the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho accuses Washington of undermining the denuclearisation process and showing “alarming” impatience on the issue. His comments come after Pompeo, speaking at the same forum, stresses the need to maintain full sanctions pressure on Pyongyang while adding that he is “optimistic” about the prospects for progress when it comes to North Korean denuclearisation. 

August 6, 2018: North Korean state media urge the US to immediately drop its sanctions, accusing it of “acting opposite” to its plans of improving ties.

August 20, 2018: Dozens of elderly North and South Koreans separated by the 1950-53 Korean War meet for the first time since their families were separated nearly 70 years ago. 

Meanwhile, the UN’s nuclear watchdog says it has seen no indication that North Korea’s nuclear activities have ceased despite pledges to denuclearise, outlining “grave concern”. 

Separately, Trump tells Reuters he will “most likely” meet Kim again, adding that he believes North Korea had taken specific steps towards denuclearisation despite widespread doubts by experts.

August 24, 2018: Still, Trump asks Pompeo to call off a trip to North Korea “at this time”, citing insufficient progress on denuclearisation. Trump also lays unspecified blame on China, which has been locked in a trade dispute with the US for months.

August 25, 2018: China hits back at Trump’s “irresponsible” and “capricious” comments following the US president’s suggestions that Beijing is stalling efforts to disarm Pyongyang.

August 26, 2018: A unified Korean team makes sporting history by winning the first place in the 500-metre women’s dragon boat final in the Asian Games held in Indonesia. It is the first gold medal by a combined Koreas team at a major multisport event.

August 28, 2018: Pentagon chief James Mattis says the US has no plans to “suspend any more” military exercises with South Korea.

September 5, 2018: Kim tells South Korean officials that his faith in Trump remains “unchanged”. The North Korean leader also says he wants to denuclearise and end long-standing hostile relations between the two sides during Trump’s first term ending early 2021, according to Chung Eui-yong, the South’s national security adviser, who met Kim in Pyongyang. Kim’s remarks mark the first time he has offered a potential timeline for dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons programme.

Thousands of civilians walked through the square waving bouquets [Ed Jones/AFP] 

September 9, 2018: North Korea stages a huge military parade to mark its 70th anniversary as a nation but refrains from displaying its most advanced missiles. There are also no nuclear tests to mark the day, as has happened in each of the previous two years.

September 10, 2018: Trump has received a “very warm, very positive” letter from Kim asking for a second meeting, the White House says, adding it is preparing to schedule one.

September 14, 2018: The two Koreas open a liaison office on the North’s side of the heavily militarised border to facilitate better communication and exchanges before a summit between Kim and Moon in Pyongyang the following week. The opening of the office in Kaesong – the first of its kind since the countries’ division at the end of World War II – is the latest in a series of reconciliatory steps taken this year.

September 18, 2018: US and Russia have a spat at the UN Security Council, with Washington accusing Moscow of “cheating” international sanctions that were placed on North Korea aimed at choking Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

September 20, 2018: After concluding their third summit, Kim and Moon say their meetings over two days have ushered in a new era of peace. “South and North Korea agreed on a specific step toward denuclearisation. It is a very meaningful achievement,” Moon says, adding that Kim is willing to “permanently” close the main nuclear complex if the US takes unspecified “reciprocal action”. The South Korean president also says that Kim wants to hasten the process of denuclearisation.

Trumps hails the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, calling the agreements reached there “very good news”, while Pompeo says he wants to restart nuclear talks with North Korea at the “earliest opportunity”.

September 25, 2018: A year after calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” in his debut speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Trump strikes a much softer tone, praising the North Korean leader for his “courage” in taking steps to disarm.

Trump tells the UNGA that much work still has to be done and sanctions must remain in place on North Korea until it denuclearises. He adds that a second summit with Kim is likely soon, raising hopes of reviving the stalled nuclear talks. Meanwhile, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long taken a hard line on North Korea, also tells the UNGA he is willing to meet Kim.

September 29, 2018: Trump declares at a rally with supporters that he and Kim “fell in love” after exchanging “great” letters.

October 1, 2018: Troops from North and South Korea begin removing landmines along their heavily fortified border, according to a South Korean defence ministry spokesperson, as part of an agreement reached at last month’s meeting in Pyongyang between Kim and Moon.

Punggye-ri has been the site of all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests [File: APTN via AP Photo]

October 7, 2018: Kim agrees to hold a second summit with Trump “as soon as possible”, South Korea says, following “productive” talks on denuclearisation between him and Pompeo in Pyongyang.

October 8, 2018: After meeting Kim, Pompeo says international inspectors will be allowed into North Korea’s dismantled nuclear testing site. The dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, located inside a mountain near the border with China, began in May, according to North Korea, but international observers have not been allowed to examine the site to verify claims.

Pompeo says “significant progress” has been made towards the “long process” of denuclearisation during his meeting with Kim. Experts, however, question how much has been achieved in Pyongyang, saying the North Korean leader appears simply to be repackaging past pledges.

October 9, 2018: South Korea’s presidential office says Kim has invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang in a gesture designed to highlight peace efforts on the Korean peninsula. North Korea and the Vatican have no formal diplomatic relations. The invitation to the pope is the first by a North Korean leader since 2000.

October 10, 2018: Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, says Seoul is considering lifting some of its unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang to create more momentum for diplomacy aimed at improving relations and defusing the nuclear crisis. Such a move will be largely symbolic as it is virtually impossible for South Korea to resume joint economic projects with North Korea under US-led international sanctions, which have been strengthened considerably since 2016 as the North accelerated its nuclear and missile tests. 

October 12, 2018: Moon urges the US to consider North Korea’s demands for a declaration that the Korean War is over.

“The North has stopped all nuclear and missile tests, dismantled its only nuclear test site and is now dismantling its missile engine test facilities and is promising to take steps toward dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex, if the US takes corresponding measures,” Moon tells the BBC. “Declaring the end of the war is a political declaration that the US would end decades of hostile relations with the North,” he says. “Moving towards such a process is the corresponding measure the US should take.”

November 1, 2018: Despite US concerns, a no-fly zone and a ban on military drills near the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea come into effect. The measures are part of a military accord signed during last month’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, which includes a halt in “all hostile acts” and gradual removal of landmines and guard posts within the Korean Demilitarized Zone. 

November 5, 2018: About 500 US and South Korean marines begin small-scale military drills. The exercises follow a warning by North Korea that it could resume development of its nuclear programme if Washington does not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.

November 7, 2018: Trump says he expects to meet Kim again early next year. “The sanctions are on … I’d love to take the sanctions off, but they [North Korea] have to be responsive, too,” Trump adds.

Pyongyang’s missile programme is moving forward at small undeclared sites, says new report  [CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2018/Handout via Reuters]

November 12, 2018: North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile programme, according to a report by a US-based think-tank which identifies over a dozen small undeclared bases.

Based on satellite images analysed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the report details 13 of the suspected 20 hidden sites, which are mostly scattered in the country’s remote mountainous areas. The reported findings, which cannot be independently verified, raise new doubts over Trump’s assertion that “incredible” progress has been made in Washington’s talks with Pyongyang.

November 16, 2018: Kim observes the successful test of a “newly developed hi-tech tactical” weapon, though it is unclear what sort of armament it was. The viewing does not appear to be a nuclear or missile-related test.

November 21, 2018: Mattis says a major joint-military exercise with South Korea, which usually involves thousands of combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, will be reduced in scope next year so it does not harm diplomatic efforts with North Korea.

December 2, 2018: A day after meeting Trump in at a G20 summit in Argentina, Moon says the US president wants Kim to know that he likes him and will fulfil his wishes.

December 24, 2018: A federal judge in the US orders Pyongyang to pay $501m in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, a US college student who died last year shortly after being released from North Korea.

December 26, 2018: North and South Korea hold a ceremony for an ambitious project to modernise and reconnect rail and road links, although construction cannot begin without progress in nuclear negotiations. Officials from the United Nations (UN), China, Russia and Mongolia also attend the US-backed event in the North’s border city of Kaesong. 

December 30, 2018: Moon’s office says Kim has sent a letter to him asking for talks in the new year. The two leaders met three times in 2018.

January 1, 2019: In his annual New Year’s address, Kim renews his commitment to denuclearisation but warns he may have no option but to seek an alternative course if the US does not take corresponding measures and maintains sanctions. Kim spends most of his speech talking about North Korea’s economy, saying that improving people’s lives was his top priority and tackling energy shortages was an urgent task.

January 8, 2019: Kim arrives in China for a visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The trip comes after US and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of the second Kim-Trump encounter.

January 10, 2019: Chinese state media say Xi has told Kim that Beijing supports a second summit with Trump, adding that the Chinese president hopes they “meet each other halfway”.

Xi and Kim at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing [Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via Reuters]

Meanwhile, Moon tells reporters a second summit is “imminent“, acknowledging that the Singapore agreement is “somewhat vague” and there is “scepticism” over Kim’s denuclearisation pledge. But he adds that Kim has assured him and other leaders that his view of denuclearisation was “no different in any way from what the international community demands”.

January 17, 2019: North Korea’s top envoy, Kim Yong Chol, arrives in the US for talks with Pompeo, in a visit aimed at laying the groundwork for a second Trump-Kim summit.

His arrival comes as Trump unveils a revamped US missile defence strategy that singles out Pyongyang as an ongoing and “extraordinary threat” – seven months after the US president declared that the North Korean threat had been eliminated.

January 18, 2019: The White House announces that the second summit will take place at the end of February. “The president looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at a place to be announced at a later date,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders says.

January 21, 2019: A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies says one of 20 undeclared ballistic missile operating bases in North Korea serves as a missile headquarters. The Washington-based think-tank says the Sino-ri base has never been declared by North Korea and as a result “does not appear to be the subject of denuclearisation negotiations.”

January 28, 2019: Japan’s Abe says he will meet Kim face-to-face in a bid to restore diplomatic relations between the two long-time foes.

January 31, 2019: Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy for North Korea, lays out an extensive list of demands for North Korean denuclearisation. Biegun calls for North Korea to declare all its nuclear and missile programmes and warns that Washington has “contingencies” if the diplomatic process fails. Pyongyang has rejected declaring its weapons programmes for decades.

February 3, 2019: In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation programme, Trump says he sees a “good chance” of reaching a deal with North Korea on denuclearisation. “I think he’s also tired of going through what he’s going through,” Trump says, referring to the international sanctions pressing on Kim’s government.  “He has a chance to have North Korea be a tremendous economic behemoth,” Trump adds. “He can’t do that with nuclear weapons and he can’t do that on the path they’re on now.”

February 4, 2019: A confidential report by UN sanctions monitors says North Korea has maintained its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and is looking for ways to ensure those capabilities cannot be destroyed by any military strikes. The report says Pyongyang “is using civilian facilities, including airports, for ballistic missile assembly and testing with the goal of effectively preventing ‘decapitation’ strikes on a smaller number of identified nuclear and missile assembly and manufacturing sites”. 

February 5, 2019: Trump announces during his annual State of the Union address to Congress that the second summit with Kim will be held on February 27-28 in Vietnam. In his speech, the US president – who raised fears of war in 2017 when he threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea – also gives himself credit for averting a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he says.

February 12, 2019: Just weeks before the second summit, the commander of US forces in South Korea says he has seen “little to no verifiable change” in Pyongyang’s military capabilities following last year’s first meeting. “Further, North Korea’s conventional and asymmetric military capabilities, along with their continued development of advanced conventional systems, remains unchecked. These capabilities continue to hold the United States, the Republic of Korea and our regional allies at risk,” General Robert Adams says.

February 19, 2019: Almost a week before meeting Kim, Trump says he wants North Korea to end its nuclear programme – but is in no rush for Pyongyang to do so. “I think I would like to see ultimately denuclearisation of North Korea. I think we will see that ultimately,” Trump says. “I have no pressing time schedule.”

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