News·9 min read

North Korea Summit

Feb 28, 2019

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for their second summit Feb. 27-28, 2019, in Vietnam.

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The Story

In February, President Trump went to Vietnam for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The goal: get the North to back off its nukes. The catch: the US intelligence community says that’s ultimately unlikely, because North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as crucial to the success of its regime.

The Background

Here’s what you need to know about the history of tension on the Korean Peninsula:

The Kim family has ruled North Korea for decades. Kim “Rocket Man” Jong Un is the one currently in charge. And the one Trump is trying to negotiate with. Here's your Skimm Notes. You’ll learn:

  • The history of his family

  • How he came to power

  • His reputation as a leader (hint: it’s not great)

The Big Issue

Multiple US presidents have tried and failed to negotiate with the North. The North – which has been ruled by the Kim family for decades and views nuclear weapons as critical to propping up its regime – has never been fully willing to play ball. But it’s been after the validation of a presidential meetup for years.

Here’s how other presidents have dealt with the country:

President Clinton: Came the closest to setting up a lasting deal. He got the US and NK to sign the"Agreed Framework" – as in the US would drop sanctions and send over some extra oil and cash in exchange for NK cooling it with its nuclear production. It eventually failed because North Korea said ‘eff it, let’s just keep building weapons.’ And because Congress was never fully on board with the plan.

President Bush: First, there was that time he labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil” in his first official State of the Union. That really got things off on the right foot. Then he took a seat at the table for the “Six-Party Talks” (think: NK, SK, China, Japan, Russia, and the US). They solved…just about nothing. And NK went ahead and conducted its first nuclear missile test.

President Obama: His MO was “strategic patience.”It didn't work. In 2014, “The Interview” was set to come out – a movie about two journalists who landed an interview with Kim Jong Un, but were recruited by the CIA to assassinate him instead. Because somehow Seth Rogen and James Franco are part of all this. NK was piiiiissed. So it hacked Sony – the studio releasing the movie. And spilled a lot of digital tea. Before Obama left office, he warned President Trump that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy challenge.

What about Trump?

Previous US presidents have always been wary that the North would ever truly commit to destroying its nuclear program. So they held off on a face-to-face meeting. Until Trump decided to throw out the rule book and see if he could make a deal with the North. Leader to leader. They held their first summit in June 2018.

How’d that go?

The two signed onto a joint statement that said they would build new relations. And that the North was committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump said ‘you’re welcome, America’ and that the North was “no longer a nuclear threat.”

Is that true?

The joint statement was light on the specifics of what denuclearization meant. There are some positive signs: the North hasn’t tested a missile or nuclear weapon since 2017. But there have been multiple reports since the first summit that indicate the country’s nuclear program is still very much active.

How did the second summit go?

It was ultimately called short when Trump thought he wasn't getting a good enough deal to shake on. Kim Jong Un wanted all sanctions lifted in exchange for dismantling parts of the country's nuclear program. Trump said 'that's not really how it works' and left when he realized Kim wasn't willing to commit to complete denuclearization

Related Issues

The Debate

Is Trump making the right move by agreeing to these meetings? Some say he agreed to them prematurely, before his admin had a strategy in place for how to handle Kim.

Others argue that Trump being willing to directly engage with Kim has led to unprecedented diplomatic progress.

The Impact

North Korea’s economy has suffered from more than a decade of sanctions by the US and international community. Kim very much wants his country to be taken seriously on the world stage and potentially to open up its economy to global trade.

Do other countries care what happens?

Most definitely. North Korea’s neighbors – especially Japan and South Korea – have a stake in continued negotiations. You know, so they can stop living under fear of a nuclear fallout. Meanwhile, Trump is up for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on this front. Add that to the list of things (national security, the future of international diplomacy) he had riding on these talks.


There are only nine countries in the world that have nuclear weapons. And North Korea is one of them. Problem, because its leader has often threatened the US and its allies. And is accused of carrying out human rights violations against its own people. Not the kind of person you want to trust with nuclear weapons. But now Trump is warning it could be a while before the two leaders meet up again – stalling about a year's worth of progress.

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