As the dust settles in the wake of the much-vaunted and, ultimately, failed second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, are the two countries now back at square one?
Before the summit, the U.S. president had hoped to make a deal with his “friend” Kim, raising speculation of a more solid denuclearization agreement — possibly even an “end-of-war declaration” of the Korean War, which has technically continued even after an armistice agreement in 1953.
Kim, having made an arduous 65-hour train journey from Pyongyang to Hanoi, had hoped to have crushing sanctions eased to help lift his economy. Prior to the meeting, North Korean state media presented their leader’s trip as a “long march” to his countrymen, but now that Kim has come out empty-handed, he’s likely to face some criticism back home.
Trump and his top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, insist they made “progress” at their meeting with Kim and his lieutenants, but the reality is that the summit ended as a flop. While Trump was arguably right to walk away from a “bad deal,” his lack of progress — at the very least, a thin joint statement — is a crippling indictment of his policy on North Korea.
How did the high-stakes diplomacy unravel at the last minute? Regional experts and analysts have long pointed to the dangers of holding a top-level summit while progress on hashing out details between working-level diplomats remained questionable.
One possible theory for Trump’s decision to walk away may be tied to domestic matters. As Trump himself complained after the summit, his meeting with Kim coincided with damning congressional testimony by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who under oath, called him a “cheat” and a “con man.”
Whether Cohen’s testimony had any effect on Trump’s decision is anyone’s guess. However, the harsh testimony no doubt pushed Trump into a corner in which he could not afford to appear weak or pandering to the North Korean leader.
The hype was also amplified by the misguided analogy that the White House peddled regarding Vietnam and North Korea. Trump stressed before and after the summit that North Korea could one day become an “economic powerhouse” if it followed the Vietnamese model.
The problem with this narrative, however, is that it’s both simplistic and incomplete. Vietnam is a country that fought — and won — a vicious war against the United States and forcibly reunited the country. North Korea, on the other hand, remains a state that is not recognized by Washington (or Seoul) and is still technically at war, despite the armistice. Although both have communist backgrounds, Vietnam has partially embraced market capitalism. North Korea has not.
Trump may have been prematurely optimistic about the bilateral process, but what about Kim?
According to the U.S. leader, one of the key factors in the summit’s failure was Kim’s demands to lift all existing sanctions on the country. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho later disputed that account, arguing that Pyongyang had only demanded a partial easing of the measures.
Kim had to know that a full-scale lifting of sanctions is off the table — at least in a more expansive sense — unless he was able to guarantee a time-bound and verifiable commitment to denuclearize. Furthermore, Ri is a seasoned diplomat who has negotiated with the United States since the 1990s and knows the issues inside and out.
The U.N. Security Council sanctions are the international community’s main source of leverage to pressure Kim to relinquish his nuclear material and missiles. To give those up at this point for apparent concessions on the Yongbyon nuclear complex would be foolish, some observers have said.
Ri told reporters that if recent U.N. sanctions — the ones with real teeth — are lifted, North Korea was ready to “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium.” Translation: If Trump and the international community agree to lift the most crippling sanctions, North Korea will partially destroy its nuclear production facilities, but still keep its weapons.
So it’s perplexing that Kim held such a maximalist position if he knew those demands were a nonstarter for the United States. If Kim equally had as much at stake, he couldn’t afford to set Trump up for failure.
Another theory was that maybe there was internal dissent in Pyongyang. As far-fetched it may seem, it’s plausible that Kim himself was set up for defeat, being played by his own generals and diplomats who want to prevent the 35-year-old dictator from giving up their hard-earned nuclear weapons. Just weeks before the Hanoi summit, several career diplomats and officials were purged, allegedly having been critical of Kim’s approach on the nuclear issue, a report by a Seoul-based think tank said.
Regardless of the domestic political machinations, however, the Hanoi talks may have merely been doomed from the start due to the lack of a clear definition of “denuclearization” — without which, the chances of Washington and Pyongyang coming to an agreement remain minimal at best.
This ambiguity is the result of the vaguely worded joint statement signed at last year’s summit in Singapore, which says North Korea will “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That statement can mean many things. While Washington has viewed it as meaning that North Korea would give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities in a verifiable way, Pyongyang sees it in more expansive terms.
For North Korea, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” ultimately involves removing America’s extended deterrence commitments to its allies in the region as well as its military presence in South Korea and Japan.
As long as there’s a conceptual divide on denuclearization, no matter how many times the Trump administration insisted that North Korea had agreed to “denuclearize,” the reality remains that Pyongyang has never made such a commitment — not in Singapore and certainly not in Hanoi.
With the process having so many fundamental problems, what now? One possibility is that Kim eventually reverts back to the regime’s time-tested tactic of brinkmanship.
To be sure, the chances of immediately returning to the days when Trump thundered about unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea remains remote. Trump said that Kim promised him that he won’t conduct further nuclear or missile tests.
Still, a verbal agreement like that is tenuous, especially with North Korea. Back in February 2012, Pyongyang verbally promised to halt its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food aid. Two months later, Kim conducted what his regime claimed was a “satellite launch” that many said was a veiled test of ballistic-missile technology.
For another, although the diplomatic process between the United States and North Korea is still alive, the chances of serious talks resuming anytime soon are bleak. With Trump clearly shifting his focus to domestic politics as election season looms, Kim may see little benefit in dealing with a politically distracted leader.
In spite of the North Korean state media’s claim that the two leaders agreed to “continue having productive talks,” the country’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, told reporters that she felt that Kim had “lost the will” to deal with Trump.
One of the biggest net losers in all of this is South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said that he was “perplexed” at how things had fallen apart so quickly.
Moon has invested deeply in bringing the U.S. and North Korea together and has tied his legacy — and his political fortunes — to progress in the relationship with his country’s northern neighbor.
While Moon felt a need to act fast last year due to Trump’s escalating war of words with Pyongyang, he essentially painted himself into a corner, having put all his eggs in the reunification basket. In the process, Moon also isolated Tokyo and berated Japan over historical issues, alienating a democratic neighbor that should be a natural ally.
On the other hand, Tokyo, which has been sidelined from the North Korea problem for sticking to its realistic — or cautious — view on the rosy view of talks emanating from Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul, has suddenly emerged as retaining the most credibility on the matter.
Indeed, if there’s one positive to take from the summit’s failure, it’s that it has forced many to come to their senses about the reality of the North Korea problem — that there are no easy answers, and that a “bromance” between two leaders can only get one so far.