It is not easy to read the runes of the Hanoi summit between the US and North Korean leaders, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un. A lot of western press has dubbed it a failure but that is not enough to understand what is going on.
The White House scheduled a joint signing ceremony to conclude the summit. It was cancelled. There were no signatures, no joint statement. Clearly, things did not go according to plan.
In the press conference, President Trump said he walked away because Kim wanted all sanctions against DPRK dropped in return for the partial if important measure of closing the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. This looks like DPRK’s main nuclear complex but is not its only one.
DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said later that the DPRK offered Yongbyon in return for partial sanctions relief but the US wanted an additional measure. He did not say what it was. The sanctions DPRK wanted, he said, were “those that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people”. Partial, certainly, but also pretty far-reaching.
Media coverage has been pretty tough on Trump. The summit “collapses after negotiations fail“, Trump left Hanoi “empty-handed and humbled” in his biggest diplomatic setback. It was, said one analyst, “predictably disappointing“, likened to a disastrous second date by another under the probably irresistible headline, “The art of the no deal”.
So does all this add up to a stunning failure, especially for President Trump, revealed as a shockingly bad negotiator rather than the master deal-maker he apparently prides himself on being, someone who was simply out of his depth in Hanoi and gives us “diplomatic amateur hour” instead of real substance?
Per-haps but sometimes in some of the commentary, I get the feeling that people who would normally think it’s a good idea to negotiate a peaceful way out of confrontation over Korea do not want this process to succeed because they do not want Trump to gain a major foreign policy success. It colours the reporting of several otherwise very good journalists and commentators. We do well to look a bit closer.
The status quo persists
At the first Trump-Kim summit on 12 June last year, on Sentosa Island, Singapore, they arrived at an agreement that set out a vague road map for moving forward on denuclearisation, a lasting peace settlement and return of the remains of servicemen killed in the Korean War.
In Hanoi, a journalist asked Kim if he is ready to give up nuclear weapons. “If I’m not willing to do that, I won’t/wouldn’t be here right now,” Kim replied through his interpreter. Yet the summit did not register progress on its key issue of denuclearisation.
The question is how bad that is. There are no signs yet of DPRK resuming missile and nuclear testing or the US and South Korea re-starting joint military exercises. DPRK missile manufacture presumably continues, as do US military deployments. Things are not yet worse than before.
But is a summit that conspicuously does not achieve an agreement on the key issues between the two states is a good way of doing things? Or, in this case, not doing things. Is it efficient? Is it potentially damaging – to South Korea (share prices tumbled immediately), to South Korean President Moon Jae-in who has invested heavily in inter-Korean dialogue and détente, to the process itself?
Trump’s explanation is that the deal they could have got was not good enough so he walked away but he insisted that they parted on good terms: “This wasn’t a walk away like you get up and walk out,” Trump said. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands.” There was, Trump said, “an agreement we continue to work.”
The logic of that is that at some point, they will return to the table.
What matters most, it seems to me, is that next time the leaders meet, the next agreement is fully pre-agreed. The next summit should bless the agreement, not negotiate it.
The Sentosa Agreement’s sparse text makes reasonably clear that both denuclearisation and achieving lasting peace are processes to work on over time. That is in keeping with Trump’s insistence even before the talks started that, “speed is not that important to me.” Chinese and especially Russian responses to the non-agreement in Hanoi are also in that vein. For the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang stressed what has been achieved since the start of 2018 and urged persistence with dialogue. For the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov emphasised the need for flexibility and for being willing to take small steps. The problem is “impossible to solve in one go,” he said.
One suggestion in that line (though not from Russia) is an agreement to formalise the end of missile testing by the DPRK. Another is the closure of Yongbyon, which was on the table this time. Another step could be to open the way to a formal end to hostilities.
Trying to add all this up, what do we get?
- It is, of course, possible that, in ways we cannot yet see, something disastrous has happened and horrible consequences will start to unfold.
- On the other hand, if there is any credibility in Trump’s claim that they left the meeting with the intention to carry on working on the problems, that is good news. Whether that is right will unfold over time across the next several weeks and maybe even months.
- It would not be a bad idea for everybody to slow down their expectations a bit. Seven decades of confrontation and worse on the Korean Peninsula will not be resolved in a short period. There are genuinely complex issues and both sides need to listen to each other very carefully indeed.
- It would be a good idea to make sure the ground is better prepared for the next summit. One non-agreement may be judicious; a second might seem careless.