As some regional observers had expected, the Hanoi Summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump failed to issue a joint statement. This reflects the remaining wide gap of trust between the two countries. Both sides left the summit without having a clear roadmap on what to do next, and neither could they expect a tacit agreement to establish a liaison office in Pyongyang.
Chairman Kim has shown his will to denuclearize but his definition of and approach towards denuclearization does not match the expectation of President Donald Trump.
Asked by a reporter if he was ready to give up his nukes, Kim replied: “If I was not, I wouldn’t be here.”
According to Mr Trump, the failure was due to the demand from Chairman Kim to entirely remove international sanctions on North Korea. The US and its allies have shown a consistent and firm position that concrete steps towards denuclearization should come first before the removal of international sanctions.
Mr Trump told reporters in Hanoi that, “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that… They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all the sanctions for that.”
He also expressed his slight disappointment with China saying, “Could he (President Xi Jinping) be more helpful? Probably.”
What would be next?
There is small room for the prospect of having rounds of fruitful negotiation in the future. The road ahead remains rocky and smoggy. What we know now is that North Korea will not test its missiles and nuclear bombs.
Mr Trump does not have the luxury of time, as political dynamics in Washington are changing, not in favor of him. Whether he could survive massive political explosives there remains a question. The question is will the US continue to negotiate with North Korea, without the Trump factor.
China plays a critical role in helping the two sides to reach meaningful, substantial deal. Hence, future rounds of negotiation will also depend on China’s view and position. Can China convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenals and on what terms?
China does not want to see its immediate neighbor possessing nuclear bombs but at the same time it also does not want to see the collapse of North Korean regime. How it balances these two agendas remains to be seen? It need not be a dichotomous choice but could be a dualistic one.
Denuclearization and removal of international sanctions could be tackled in parallel. The US and North Korea perhaps must find a mechanism and ways to have a package deal on these two issues. Regional stakeholders such as China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia could play more relevant roles in persuading both sides to reach a deal.
North Korea perhaps needs to clarify its stand on denuclearization that could match the expectation of the US. And the US might need to assure North Korea on the removal of international sanctions in their entirety and pledge support to North Korea to develop its economy.
Regime survival is in the core interest of North Korea. Unless there is concrete, reliable commitment from the US, North Korea will not take risk dismantling its nuclear weapons. It is crystal clear that nukes help leverage North Korea’s negotiation power.