Commentary / World

The upside of 'no agreement' in Hanoi

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Contributing Writer

Leading into the Hanoi summit, observers were abuzz about what would happen, but few predicted the way it ended: no agreement. The most anticipated four key deliverables from Hanoi were: an end-of-war declaration; establishment of a liaison office in Pyongyang; concessions on the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for sanctions relief; and continued cooperation on repatriation of Korean War remains. After all the speculation, what observers ended up seeing was an empty lunch table, a canceled signing ceremony, and one world leader on the stage for the press conference instead of two.

Now comes the time when many will speculate about the danger of “no agreement.” Some will worry that it portends a backslide to the days of “rocket man,” “dotard” and “fire and fury.” Others will wonder whether it is possible to break a diplomatic impasse that could not be resolved with both leaders present. Still others will question if any of this diplomacy is worth it at all.

There is, however, an upside to “no agreement.” For diplomacy with North Korea to be successful, the negotiations themselves must shape the Kim regime’s behavior. This means that commitment to process is critical, boundaries are as important as concessions, and a rushed deal on denuclearization is self-defeating.

After the Singapore summit, the North Korean government eschewed most working-level talks in the hopes that summit diplomacy would force U.S. negotiators to rush into a deal in Hanoi, and the play did not work out for them. What did happen though is both sides had an opportunity to communicate their positions clearly, and rather than cobbling together undesirable summit deliverables, they have the chance to go back to working level talks to find a mutually acceptable agreement. While some will take this as a failure of diplomacy, it was a victory for process.

This result will garner mixed reactions from regional players. The South Korean government will be disappointed by the outcome of the Hanoi summit. The Moon administration wanted to accelerate inter-Korean projects but will hit a ceiling with sanctions that are in-place. President Moon Jae-in has little choice but to continue to play facilitator between the North and the United States. It should be expected that the less likely that a breakthrough between the U.S. and North sides becomes, the more adamant the Moon administration will be in pushing for diplomatic resolutions, maybe even offering greater unilateral concessions to the Kim regime.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the maximum pressure campaign is not dead yet, which should bring a smile to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s face. The Abe administration has continued to champion the need for pressure against North Korea, and the U.S. government’s decision not to lift sanctions without adequate concessions from the North Korean side ensures that pressure can remain in place until the Kim regime takes more substantive steps toward reform. While South Korea and the United States are seeking to engage North Korea diplomatically, Japan will also work to open a line of communication with the Kim regime. After all, Japan has other issues it still wants addressed like abductees, and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

China and Russia both wanted to see sanctions lifted and the end of the Korean War declared. They have repeatedly called for relaxation of sanctions and for a new regime of U.N. Security Council resolutions related to the Korean Peninsula. While the summit delays those initiatives, it will be important to watch how the two countries respond to the U.S. call for holding fast on sanctions enforcement.

All parties in the region can expect status quo for security conditions on the Korean peninsula as a result of the impasse in Hanoi. As long as North Korea is angling for sanctions relief via the negotiating table, it will avoid taking steps that could jeopardize its position in the talks. This means continued abstention from provocative behavior including nuclear and missile testing.

At the same time, the U.S. government will leave a path to diplomacy open. The cost of military conflict is too great to close the door on alternatives. Fortunately, the military option is even further off the table than it was before the past two summits, especially if North Korea continues to refrain from overt nuclear and missile provocations.

Now, the important question is what comes next?

There is a degree of “wait and see” that follows an impasse in scheduled negotiations. One party will have to invite the other back to the table, and that process can take time. Still, neither side indicated that negotiations are over completely or that a deal was impossible. Rather, the answer in Hanoi was simply that a deal was not possible right now. Ultimately, neither side wants a backslide to war — they just need time and diplomatic engagement at lower levels to find a mutually acceptable way ahead.

It seemed evident through the press conference that the two points of contention in the negotiations were denuclearization and sanctions relief. The question now is how they break the impasse. Both sides must get creative in crafting new positions based on their true interests. For the United States, shaping North Korea into a responsible actor is the primary object, and there are other concessions that can be made to those ends. Meanwhile, North Korea seeks regime legitimacy and economic growth, but sanctions relief is not the only way to support those objectives.

There remains hope for long-term reconciliation between the two adversaries. The two sides must focus on core interests over hard-line positions while being willing to accept incremental progress over a long period rather than the big wins expected via summit diplomacy. By walking away at the Hanoi summit, both the U.S. and North Korea now have an opportunity to reconvene talks at the working level and allow for greater creativity in reaching long-term, sustainable solutions that summit diplomacy was unlikely to achieve.

If both parties can keep those diplomatic channels open, there is hope in “no agreement” from Hanoi.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan. Previously, he was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan.