President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are set to meet in Vietnam this week for their second summit aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program.

And nearly every expert I’ve spoken to is incredibly pessimistic about the chances that the summit will succeed. That’s in large part because it seems that the Trump administration has no idea what the hell it’s doing right now or how it plans to handle the upcoming incredibly critical negotiations.

Rebecca Hersman, an expert on nuclear weapons at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, is one of those people who doubt much substantive will likely come out of the meeting.

Yet when I saw Hersman speak at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week, she made some really interesting comments about the smaller steps the US and North Korea could agree to in Vietnam that would be meaningful — things she said would demonstrate the negotiations are serious. None of them would end the current nuclear threat, but they might prove Trump has gotten somewhere with Kim.

So after her presentation, I called Hersman to better understand her views and find out more about what it would take to call the Vietnam summit a success — or a failure.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.


Alex Ward

Let’s start with what you spoke about on the panel: the steps the US and North Korea could take that would signal that the talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program were truly serious. The first one you mentioned was the disclosure by North Korea of at least some of its secret nuclear facilities.

Rebecca Hersman

That would mark a move away from recycling the same old thing. I think that would offer us genuine insight into North Korea’s range of capabilities that we haven’t really seen before. We would gather, I think, actual concrete new information that we might not otherwise have.

Second, it’d be great if North Korea allowed inspectors into the country so they could take samples. That would allow the world to know what’s really going on inside North Korea.

Of course, none of this would denuclearize North Korea, but perhaps we could start to slow its further accumulation of materials.


A signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at South Korean restaurant on February 20, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at South Korean restaurant on February 20, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

Alex Ward

What materials, specifically?

Rebecca Hersman

Specifically, I’m talking about what we call “weapons-usable nuclear material” like plutonium or highly enriched uranium that could be used to make nuclear bombs.

Alex Ward

So why would having inspectors on the ground also be a sign of progress, potentially?

Rebecca Hersman

North Korea may say it’s dismantling its nuclear arsenal or ceasing plutonium production or whatever. But if the world can’t verify that, it’s not clear how meaningful Pyongyang’s concession would be.

So what I’m looking for are things that are meaningful reductions in capability, or that I think meaningfully contribute to a more stable posture in the interim.

Alex Ward

So even if Trump and Kim come out of Vietnam with agreements to do some of the things you discuss, there would still be a lot of steps to take to make sure North Korea is actually following through with that agreement.

Rebecca Hersman

Well, yes but let me be clear: These steps wouldn’t make me think that we were on a path to a more successful process. These are the types of things that would make me feel more hopeful about the process.

They don’t constitute a deal or an endgame, but they constitute a more serious conversation than what we’ve seen to date. I think that that is really important in terms of making concrete progress.

Alex Ward

Let’s go back to the sampling part for a second. What does that even look like? I assume the inspectors would do it?

Rebecca Hersman

Yes, I think it would be a typical part of an inspection process to take environmental samples. That helps to confirm what’s being produced.

Alex Ward

And by environmental testing, you mean like air samples?

Rebecca Hersman

It could be in the air, but it could also be what we would think of as a swipe of surfaces. That allows you to test those materials for nuclear residue.


A worker at the t-shirt store of Truong Thanh Duc dry the newly printed t-shirts with the portraits of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 21, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A worker at the T-shirt store of Truong Thanh Duc dry the newly printed t-shirts with the portraits of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 21, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

Alex Ward

Okay, so let’s recap what might make you hopeful: North Korea 1) revealing undeclared facilities; 2) disclosing how it enriches materials to use in bombs, 3) allowing inspections, and 4) allowing inspectors to take samples in previously unknown locations.

Rebecca Hersman

Yes, but on the inspectors bit, I want to reiterate that they need to be at a meaningful location. If they’re hanging out at a hotel somewhere, talking to each other, drinking coffee, that’s not helpful. But if you combine the declaration of a facility with at least a first initial inspection, and an opportunity to do some analysis, that sounds more meaningful.

Putting an inspector back into the same places they might have been before is less encouraging. Maybe not terrible, but less encouraging.

Alex Ward

What would the Holy Grail be for inspectors in this case, then? That they are allowed to go into a previously undeclared facility?

Rebecca Hersman

The Holy Grail is getting production to cease at various facilities. But a starting point is to gain a better insight into where these facilities are, what was produced there, how much, and of what nature.

That all starts to fill in a picture of what we call “material accounting,” which is the ability to know how much nuclear stuff has been produced and of what character. For example, if inspectors are looking at uranium, they should get to know at least at what levels the uranium was enriched.

Knowing that allows us to accumulate some pretty meaningful information that previously we would not have had access to.

Alex Ward

So what’s your confidence level that we might get anything close to what you’ve outlined?

Rebecca Hersman

There are two different issues involved with the confidence level.

One is whatever the administration seeks to achieve. I confess to being a little bit confused. On the one hand, you hear descriptions of a very all-or-nothing approach, in terms of how we must do something big or it doesn’t mean anything. Then on the other hand, we hear that this could take forever and that there’s “no rush.”

What I’m trying to identify is: What are some things that could be done fairly quickly that would let me believe the process was more serious and worth these additional engagements?

Let me emphasize that it’s not just on the nuclear side. I think these types of gestures can happen on the missile side, too. Identifying missile bases or allowing inspections in undeclared missile facilities, and sharing more detailed information about missile capabilities. Those would be impactful, as well.

Alex Ward

If we got, let’s say, any one of these things that you discussed out of the Hanoi meeting, should we consider at least the summit itself a success?

Rebecca Hersman

That might be a little too hypothetical. It really may depend on some of the details and what the package looks like.

You haven’t asked me what we gave up to get any of these things. That would certainly color my thinking on that. I don’t believe we should make any concessions on the scale of withdrawing our 28,500 troops from the Korean Peninsula.

I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of getting transparency-type measures, confidence building-type measures, crisis communications measures. Those might help us build in a little bit of a safety net here should the two leaders stop getting along so well.

Alex Ward

That’s an interesting point. Everyone’s going to be looking at the nuclear stuff, but there is a chance to move forward on the US-North Korea relationship on its own. That’s important, because if things go south between Kim and Trump, it’s vital for there to be a framework in place so both countries don’t go at each other’s throats down the line.

Rebecca Hersman

Exactly, we don’t want to revisit “fire and fury,” right? That is not a good place to be. What we want to do is, at a minimum, come out of this dialogue with a sense that the environment is safer and that the risk of catastrophic conflict is diminished as we continue to work towards goals of denuclearization.

My concern is that everybody getting along and sending letters back and forth doesn’t meaningfully do that. Perhaps further looking at how you posture troops along the demilitarized zone might do that, or how moving artillery further out of range might do that. And again, establishing important crisis-communication mechanisms might do that.

There are ways that we could create a situation that, while far from ideal, is slightly more stable.


President Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018 in Singapore.

President Donald Trump answers a final question while departing a press conference following his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un June 12, 2018, in Singapore.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Alex Ward

We’ve talked a lot about success. What does failure look like?

Rebecca Hersman

There are probably a couple worrisome versions of failure.

First, failure is a decoupling of our alliance with South Korea — where we basically break our relationship with South Korea to make a deal with North Korea.

Second, failure would be if we leave the summit with North Korea feeling emboldened and potentially more aggressive in the future.

Third, failure would be another situation where there are incredibly superficial agreements and broadly worded statements that never manifest into concrete steps that could lead to a more stable situation.

Fourth, failure is the United States continuing to make concessions without seeing commensurate progress on the part of the North Koreans — or seeing, frankly, disproportionate progress.

It’s not the United States or South Korea that has been under UN Security Council resolutions for threatening the peace and security of the globe, that’s North Korea. The idea that actions have to be proportionate is a bit misguided.

Alex Ward

It’s of course unclear right now what Trump and Kim will agree to, but a massive deal where Kim gives up all his weapons is extremely unlikely. So even if they agree to all the measures we discussed, the central problem — that North Korea has a nuclear program that threatens the US and its allies — will remain the same after Hanoi, right?

Rebecca Hersman

Absolutely. Actually, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which has the potential to threaten the United States and its allies, will exist after Hanoi even if it is a success beyond all imagining.

Even if Kim Jong Un walks into the meeting and says, “I’ve made a strategic decision: I no longer want nuclear weapons, just come in and take it all,” those will still just be words.

The process of actually working to eliminate that program is not something that’s done in a few days or weeks or even months. You have to get beyond the words to actually reduce the threat. What you don’t want is to have an agreement in words that doesn’t move the needle in practice and in turn provides almost a cover for ongoing misbehavior.