After much hype, the second Trump–Kim summit in Hanoi ended a half-day early as the two leaders failed to reach agreement. There is still a long road ahead to realise “the McDonald’s and Trump tower” transformation that President Trump promises to deliver to North Korea.
The choice of Vietnam as the host was supposed to be symbolic of where North Korea could go. After the bloodshed of the Vietnam War, the United States and Vietnam reconciled. The United States lifted its trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and the two countries normalised their diplomatic relations in 1995. Of course, Vietnam opened up to other countries, including Australia, before it achieved reconciliation with the United States, a choice not so readily open to North Korea. This helped to transform Vietnam’s economy, now one of the fastest growing in the world.
The first US–DPRK summit in Singapore in June 2018 was criticised for producing an agreement that didn’t give details on how it was going to achieve its ambitious goals: complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula; replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty; and the provision of security guarantees to North Korea. But, given the long history of US–DPRK tensions and hostilities and the fiery rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Singapore summit was a success in establishing trust and demonstrating a seriousness of purpose that was a necessary first step to kick-start the negotiation process.
So what went wrong in Hanoi?
The second summit needed to be more than just confidence-building theatre. It needed to show discernible progress in the negotiations. Summits are usually prepared to be successful events where leaders turn up to sign a largely pre-negotiated agreement and bask in praise.
Former South Korea unification minister Jeong Se-hyun suggests that things fell apart in Hanoi when US National Security Advisor John Bolton made a late appearance and demanded North Korea declare chemical and biological weapons. Another theory posits that the two leaders, presented with a prepared close-to-finished document by negotiators, failed to agree on how to fill in the critical blanks.
For many in the US security community the “no deal” comes as a relief. There were concerns that Mr Trump would be eager to rush into a deal, no matter what the costs of the concessions, to claim the diplomatic achievement for his administration. This seemed an over-urgent goal due to the impending report by FBI special prosecutor Robert Mueller on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and possible obstruction of justice as well as the heat on Mr Trump from his former fixer Michael Cohen’s damning testimony last week to Congress.
In his exit press conference in Hanoi, Mr Trump pushed the line that he is a tough negotiator who is prepared to walk away from a bad deal. He explained that the North Koreans “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety”, but were not offering enough on denuclearisation to justify it. He didn’t need to travel halfway around the world to make that point.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho provided a rebuttal. He explained that North Korea offered to “completely dismantle all the nuclear material-productive facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium in the presence of US experts and by the joint work of technicians from both countries”. And in exchange North Korea requested that sanctions related to 5 out of 11 UN Security Council Resolutions be lifted (those passed in 2016 and 2017 against testing but not those before).
This would remove “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of (North Korea’s) people”. Presumably this would still have maintained sanctions on goods and finances related to nuclear weapons, missiles, luxury goods as well as travel bans on individuals connected to nuclear programmes and inspections of cargo into and out of North Korea to uphold the sanctions regime.
Indeed, the current broad nature of sanctions hurt the North Korean population more than they punish the top leadership. Possibly the only Westerner who set up but ultimately abandoned business in North Korea bemoaned the sanctions on countless “dual-use” items which could be used for both civilian and military purposes. His attempts to set up factories to produce cheap food and medicine for local consumption in North Korea were thwarted when chemicals needed in the processing of food items and of pharmaceuticals were confiscated in Beijing.
Both sides have put a more than usually positive spin on the summit’s failure, claiming much progress made and openness to continued negotiation.
But a number of critical complications will need to be addressed before a third summit is worth the effort. Mr Ri’s explanation leaves unanswered the question of a full declaration of nuclear assets beyond Yongbyon and Mr Ri “parses words”, as the US chief negotiator claims, on sanctions. On the other hand, Mr Trump offers no clue as to how the United States will sequence the lifting of sanctions in return for what steps North Korea takes toward denuclearisation.
Both China and South Korea have called for the United States and North Korea to produce a roadmap to facilitate progress through “phased denuclearisation in return for US concessions. This would include reducing sanctions, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and progress towards a peace treaty to provide firm security guarantees for the Korean peninsula”.
Sequenced step-for-step actions are necessary in order to navigate the gap between US demands for one-shot Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearisation and North Korea’s demands for iron-clad security guarantees to guard against a Libya-style scenario of denuclearisation today and regime change tomorrow.
The international community must rally to encourage the United States and North Korea to continue negotiations and ensure that Hanoi is just a bump along the road towards a long-term settlement and not a derailment of the process. The risks of a return of the “fire and fury” that preceded Singapore are too great.
The East Asia Forum Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. This comment first appeared in East Asia Forum and can be assessed at https://bit.ly/2EMFAX7