Commentary / World

What's next for U.S.-North Korea talks?

by Yuki Tatsumi

The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un drew to an early close when the two leaders realized they were nowhere near to be able to sign any agreement. For those in Washington who closely monitored the developments leading up to the summit, the fear was that Trump will rush to sign any agreement with Kim for the sake of being able to say he “made a deal.” Now that the seemingly the worst fear has been averted (at least for now), what should concern us?

First is how U.S. policy toward North Korea will unfold in the following months. In the press conference immediately following the summit, both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that the talk between the U.S. and North Korea will continue — just not at the leaders’ level.

One encouraging sign for the observers who looked at Trump administration’s North Korea policy with anxiety was Trump actually seemed to have taken the assessment provided by U.S. intelligence community — which he often openly disagrees — into account as he faced Kim. While they both repeatedly said they were “optimistic” that the U.S. and North Korea will eventually reach an agreement, how the U.S. sustain negotiation with North Korea is unclear, especially now it is clear to the entire world that North Korea’s original negotiating position was to demand all the sanction to be removed for what can be best called as partial denuclearization. Also, while Trump put a good face in the press conference and stressed that he has a very warm personal relationship with Kim, it is essentially an embarrassment for him not being able to reach a “deal” after two summits. There is no guarantee that as the time goes by, Trump, increasingly distracted by political developments at home including his 2020 presidential election bid, will not go back to “fire and fury” rhetoric.

Second, how North Korea will react to the two failed summit meetings will be a major concern. Although, according to Trump’s account, Kim gave his word that his country would not test missiles and nuclear weapons “regardless,” it remains to be seen whether he will keep his word and maintain the current self-imposed nuclear and missile test moratorium, either. Kim returns to North Korea empty-handed, which will be an embarrassment just as big, if not bigger, as the sense of disappointment that Trump returns to Washington with. If anything, this could strengthen the hands of the hardliners within North Korea to argue for returning to further provocations and resume testing.

Third, South Korea’s reaction is another factor that requires attention to. For better or for worse, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has determined to make reconciliation not only between North and South Korea but also between the U.S. and North Korea to his diplomatic legacy. Already, initial reaction from Seoul is that the South Korean government will continue its consultation with North Korea despite some adjustments may be made to the scope and depth of such consultations. Furthermore, Moon is said to want to meet Trump as soon as possible with a hope to play a role of mediator between Trump and Kim. Given the current tension in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, given Trump’s general wariness toward maintaining a U.S. military presence in South Korea. which was most recently demonstrated by the difficulty with which the two sides renegotiated the Special Measure Agreement, it could introduce another source of tension in defense relationship between the two countries should Seoul continues to make reconciliation with Pyongyang its utmost important priority.

Finally, Japan will certainly not be unaffected by the results (or the lack thereof) of the Hanoi summit. To be sure, Trump did not undermine its national security by signing a deal that leaves the issues of acute security concern for Japan (short- and medium-range ballistic missile, for example) unaddressed, but still commits the U.S. to move toward lifting sanction against Pyongyang. But this also leaves Japan in a place where it has been since early 1990s when this problem first emerged — North Korea posing a clear and present security threat to Japan. In fact, the situation has worsened for Japan considerably, as North Korea has now become a de facto nuclear weapon state.

So after much fanfare and anticipation leading up to the “historic” summit in Singapore and Hanoi, the world continues to grapple with the North Korean nuclear program. Now that the U.S. has exhausted what it usually considers its ultimate diplomatic means — a summit with the its president — how to move forward from this point on will be uncertain at best.

Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.