As the old saying goes, first impressions count. Yet when it comes to high-level international negotiations between two nuclear-armed powers, first impressions can only get you so far. Eventually, when all the smiles and the personal chemistry is put aside, agreements need to be made and details have to be worked out.
The first summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held in Singapore in June 2018, was both ‘a bold and daring move that opened the door to the possibility of transforming the conflict on the Korean peninsula` but also was widely seen as disappointing due to the vague nature of the agreement made which was ‘even thinner than most sceptics anticipated` (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018: Lyons, Weaver and Hass, June 12th 2018).
Given that the first summit did not live up to expectations there was much riding on a second summit. As I argued in my previous article, Here We Go Again: The Long Dance of US-North Korean relations, a second summit between Trump and Kim needed to explore and confirm the details of how what was broadly agreed in Singapore (and what wasn’t dealt with) was to be addressed. Rhetorical discussions over peace and bright futures needed to be turned into practical and measurable outcomes. The Singapore summit set down the end goals for both parties but there was no conclusion on the route that should be taken to get there. This would have to be addressed.
Both sides entered the Hanoi Summit with key objectives: for the North Koreans, securing sanction relief from the US was vital whilst for the US, securing progress on North Korean nuclear disarmament was its main priority (Borger, 27th February 2019). It was clear from the outset that these two issues, sanction relief and nuclear disarmament were so closely interlinked that the summit would likely rise or fall on this issue – indeed it was seen to be a key stumbling block (O’Carroll, 27th February 2019).
The importance of these key issues – sanction relief for the North Korea and denuclearisation for the US – can be seen in the manner in which the US, in the lead up to the Hanoi Summit, was considering options to put to North Korea in terms of concession. These included: dismantling of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programme; missile engine testing sites; freezes on fissile material production; closing of the Yongbyon reactor which produces both plutonium and tritium (for the production of hydrogen bombs); shutting down plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities or at the very least placing them under external monitoring. These concessions, on the part of North Korea, could be tied to incentives by the US such as an infrastructure package for North Korea which would include direct American investment as well as partial sanction relief, if there was a mechanism for that relief to be reversible should North Korea resume its previous activities (Borger, 16th June 2019: O’Carroll, 27th February 2019; Panda, 26th March 2019).
Two of the difficulties leading up to the Hanoi Summit, which had been seen in the preparations for the Singapore Summit, were that the North Koreans refused to discuss:
anything of substance regarding denuclearization, such as a clear timetable of reciprocal steps or a declaration of facilities and stockpiles that is the basis for any serious verification regime (Daniel Sneider quoted in O’Carroll, 27th February 2019).
They preferred to settle all issues in the face-to-face negotiations between Trump and Kim, whilst the Americans were unable to apply pressure on the North Koreas to negotiate because of the intervention of President Trump himself, which effectively undercut their efforts (O’Carroll, 27th February 2019).
In my opinion, this dual pressure has effectively turned the US-North Korea negotiations into direct Kim and Trump negotiations which rested entirely on the two men. If the Hanoi Summit succeeded or failed – it would be because of those two men. Richard Haass refers to this as ‘over personalised diplomacy` which carries intrinsic risks (Allison, March 1st 2019). Arguably for the North Koreans, this was seen as crucial, given their experience at Singapore, where by allowing the focus to be on face-to-face discussions between Trump and Kim, there was the possibility of a outcome favourable to North Korea (Panda, March 26th 2019).
The Summit That Wasn’t Meant to Be
International politics, much like life itself, is full of surprises. Events can seem to be running in one direction towards a much desired end and then, out of the blue, a change can happen, and events can tumble the opposite way. In one moment, the White House had been circulating plans for negotiation sessions, a working lunch and a signing ceremony, which seemed to indicate an agreement between North Korea and US was within reach, but within half a day, the whole summit was over. (Borger, March 1st 2019). The two-day summit had only reached it second day (Al Jazeera, March 2nd 2019).
As with any relationship, when things go sour, both parties give very different narratives as to why the relationship broke down and why both sides walked away. According to Trump, the potential agreement between North Korea and the United States which could have come out of the Second Summit broke down because, whilst the US wanted North Korea’s nuclear facilities, including but not exclusively the Yongbyon facility, disabled and dismantled, North Korea wanted sanctions removed entirely, which the US was not prepared to provide without more concessions by North Korea (Al Jazeera, March 2nd, 2019; Borger, March 1st 2019). According to Trump, there was a ‘gap` between the US and North Korean positions that could not be bridged (Borger, March 1st 2019). By comparison, the North Koreans, according to Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, had not demanded the full removal of sanctions relief but only partial removal, in exchange for the closing of the Yongbyon facilities and thus it was US intransigence and hostility to the North Korea’s leadership, which had derailed the talks (Al Jazeera, March 2nd 2019; Borger, March 1st 2019).
For many, the collapse of the Hanoi Summit was inevitable as the two had incompatible demands and indeed the cause of collapse can be seen in the two sides irreconcilable positions: North Korea wanted extensive sanction relief, relating to its “civilian economy”, namely revenue from petroleum, iron and overseas labour, whilst the US wanted complete denuclearisation of North Korea and neither were prepared to provide concessions to the other (Panda, March 26th 2019; Panda and Narang, 5th March 2019). From the North Korea perspective, having already dismantled its main nuclear test site, offered a unilateral moratorium on testing of ICBMs and nuclear weapons and dismantled a missile engine test stand connected to its ICBM programme, it was for the US to offer a concession and though it was interested in a declaration of the end of the Korean War, opening of a liaison office between North Korea and the US and modifications to US-South Korean joint military exercises, what it really desired was sanction relief. The centrality of sanction relief to North Korea was largely underestimated by analysts and largely seen as too much of a concession by the US (Panda and Narang, 5th March 2019).
From the US perspective, what North Korea was prepared to offer were solely insufficient: its unilateral mortarium would be continuing a commitment already made though it would limit North Korea’s progress in relation to nuclear weapons and ICBMs and confine North Korea’s ability to prepare for a war with live launches. In addition, the closing of Yongbyon would cut North Korea’s ability to produce plutonium and limiting its enrichment of uranium, however for the US this would not cut its uranium enrichment completely whilst the Yongbyon reactor itself was consider to be old. These concessions would also not effectively halt the development of chemical and biological weapons (Panda and Narang, 5th March 2019). Though the US did rule out a comprehensive sanction relief, it failed to take advantage of the opportunity to outline what sanctions it might be prepared to remove in exchange, which could have allowed the start of discussion on a phased process for denuclearisation. However, with both sides refusing to make concessions, and their positions remaining irreconcilable, the summit collapsed, just as was expected. (Panda and Narang, 5th March 2019).
Nevertheless, despite the collapse of the second summit in Hanoi and the lack of any discussions about a further third summit, both sides appear to be content with the status quo based on a continued suspension of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and the suspension of joint military exercises between the US and South Korea by the US, which I believe offers the possibility for another summit once the recriminations and accusations have passed (Borger, March 1st 2019). This is very similar to a long-standing standard applied during historic US and North Korean talks in which North Korea would refrain from pursuing nuclear and missile technology, the US would not expand its existing sanctions programme. However in light of the collapse of the second summit, there has been threats from the US side of additional sanctions being brought in, which would derail any hopes of continued talks (Panda, 26th March, 2019).
Though it appears that the strange relationship established between Kim and Trump remains relatively intact as Trump declared ‘He’s quite a guy and quite a character. And our relationship is very strong.` (Trump cited by Borger, March 1st 2019). The US administration appears divided over how to respond to Kim and North Korea, with US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appearing to represent a hard-line faction that want to maintain sanctions until there is movement on denuclearisation, whilst Trump appears to be flexible and openminded to a deal involving sanction relief as long as that relief is reversible, should North Korea resume its nuclear programme (Panda, March 2nd 2019).
When a loss is still a win and when a win is a loss
Whether the Hanoi Summit was a success or failure, to a certain extent, rests on one’s perspective. From the North Korean perspective, Kim can walk away from the Hanoi summit, as he did from the first summit in Singapore, as the leader of a nuclear-armed power recognised and respected by the United States and not ‘an international pariah that starves its citizens` (Al Jazeera, March 2nd, 2019).
From the US perspective, Trump and his administration, in taking a different approach to diplomacy in both the Singapore and Hanoi summits, was responding to the clear failure of the approaches taken by both the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which had, produced the very thing they desired to avoid. The result of decades of US policy towards North Korea had produced:
A small, isolated hermit kingdom proceeded to test a nuclear device, develop missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons against American troops and allies in South Korea and Japan, produce an arsenal of as many as sixty nuclear warheads, and reach the threshold of an ability to deliver nuclear-armed ICBMs against the American homeland (Allison, March 1st 2019).
Crucially for both sides, the Hanoi Summit has provided an opportunity for both sides to recognise and understand each sides red-lines, having come close to some sort of agreement but ultimately walking away without any such agreement (Allison, March 1st 2019). This could presumably enable both sides to reach some sort of agreement in a future summit, if there is one, having been able to recognise each other’s intentions and understand that ‘the only security between their two countries [is] mutual security` (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th, 2018). For the US, this could be that North Korea’s short-term desire is solely sanction relief and indeed this appears to be what North Korea is looking for as a concession, though what they would offer in exchange is unclear (Panda, March 26th 2019).
Where do we go from here?
It seems clear that both the Singapore and Hanoi Summits have fallen short of the expectations place upon them and their failure to result in a clear agreement between the US and North Korea
Like the Singapore Summit before it, the Hanoi Summit, can be seen as a significant step on the road to a denuclearised North Korea (Allision, March 1st 2019) in that both sides have remained in discussions with one another, avoiding a return to the hostile war of words and threat of war breaking out between North Korea and the US which proceeded the Singapore Summit. The failure of the Hanoi Summit may bring the negotiations back from face-to-face summits towards more consistent diplomacy as it has been demonstrated to North Korea, through Trump walking away, that their hopes of gaining concession through face-to-face Trump-Kim talks may not be possible unless efforts have been taken to bridge the divide between the two sides irreconcilable position (Panda and Narang, March 5th 2019).
In my opinion, such a return to negotiations outside of summits might help illustrate where there are areas of possible agreement, such as partial sanction relief in exchange for specific phased actions of denuclearisation, which were a possibility at Hanoi but largely missed because of the maximalist demands of both sides. Such ground work could pave the way for a third summit between Trump and Kim. Whilst North Korea appears prepared for partial sanction relief, the US needs to move from unilateral and immediate disarmament towards, a long-term disarmament, built in the short-term on constraining and limiting the growth of North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM capability, which could be achieved through partial sanction relief. The risk however is that failing to achieve at Hanoi what had not been achieved at Singapore, hardliners in both the US and North Korean administration, could ignore the space for bridging the divide between the two sides and instead focus on the gap between themselves and conclude it is ‘unbridgeable` which could lead to increased tensions as both sides pursue antagonistic policies (Panda and Narang, March 5th 2019). The role of such hardliners in escalating tensions between the two countries can be seen in war of words around the ‘Libyan model of denuclearisation’ in May 2018, which was explored extensively in my previous article, Will They? Won’t They? The Kim-Trump Courtship in International Relations.
What happens now is in the hands of the US and North Korea, or more specifically Trump and Kim and it is for them to decide the route ahead. We can only hope that having met each other twice, they have found enough out about each other to desire to meet for a third time.
Al Jazeera (March 2nd 2019), ‘North Korea’s Kim Jong Un leaves Vietnam after summit breakdown`, available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/03/north-korea-kim-jong-leaves-vietnam-summit-breakdown-190302174213550.html (Accessed on the 27th March 2019).
Allison, Graham, National Interest, (March 1st 2019), ‘Misunderstanding Trump’s “Failed” Hanoi Summit` available at: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/misunderstanding-trump%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cfailed%E2%80%9D-hanoi-summit-45967 (Accessed on the 2nd April 2019).
Borger, Julian, The Guardian (March 1st 2019), ‘Vietnam Summit: North Korea and US offer differing reasons for failure of talks` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/28/vietnam-summittrump-and-kim-play-down-hopes-of-quick-results-nuclear-talks (Accessed on the 27th March 2019).
Borger, Julian, The Guardian (February 27th 2019), ‘Trump-Kim summit proves to be more of a remake than a sequel` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/27/trump-kim-jong-un-summit-vietnam (Accessed on the 2nd April 2019).
Borger, Julian, The Guardian (June 16th 2018), ‘A historic handshake…but what did the Trump-Kim summit really achieve?` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/16/trump-kim-summit-analysis-north-korea (Accessed on the 2nd April 2019).
Lyons Kate, Weaver Matthew and Hass, Benjamin, The Guardian (June 12th 2018), ‘Singapore summit: what we learned from the Trump-Kim meeting`, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/12/singapore-meeting-what-we-know-so-far (Accessed on 24th September 2018).
O’Carroll, Chad, NK News (February 27th 2019), ‘Hanoi summit likely to reaffirm Singapore goals, commit to “brighter future” for DPRK` available at: https://www.nknews.org/2019/02/hanoi-summit-likely-to-reaffirm-singapore-goals-commit-to-brighter-future-for-dprk/ (Accessed on the 2nd April 2019).
Panda, Ankit, The Atlantic (March 26th 2019), ‘Trump’s North Korean Blunder` available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/03/trumps-north-korean-sanctions-blunder/585706/ (Accessed on the 27th March 2019).
Panda, Ankit and Narang, Vipin (March 5th 2019), ‘The Hanoi Summit Was Doomed From the Start`, available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2019-03-05/hanoi-summit-was-doomed-start (Accessed on the 27th March 2019).
Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Holmes, Marcus, The Conversation (March 13th 2018), ‘Lessons for Trump-Kim summit from Reagan and Gorbachev: trust and reassurance before denuclearisation`, available at: https://theconversation.com/lessons-for-trump-kim-summit-from-reagan-and-gorbachev-trust-and-reassurance-before-denuclearisation-93250 (Accessed on 24th September 2018).