The much anticipated second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un has come to an abrupt end with absolutely no agreement made. What does this outcome mean? How does it affect future negotiations regarding the Korean Peninsula? Sangsoo Lee and Alec Forss of ISDP’s Korea Center answer some of the key questions that have arisen post Hanoi.
What is your reaction to the outcome of the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim?
I was surprised that the two sides did not make even a minor deal. However, from the U.S. perspective, no deal was better than a bad deal for Trump. Obviously the two leaders couldn’t find a common ground which could be compromised at the negotiation table. A top priority and critical condition for North Korea was that any move towards denuclearization would require a lifting of sanctions, agreed by the U.S. However, Trump could not accept such a deal as this would bring significant domestic criticisms. Considering other negative domestic matters Trump is currently facing, adhering to Kim’s bargaining tool could have had a detrimental impact on his presidency.
Under this pressure, it seems plausible that Trump could have made a demand that North Korea take a bigger step, for example to not only dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, but to also include the ending of all Highly Enriched Uranium productions. However, what is clear is that North Korea did not offer enough for Trump to overcome his domestic difficulties. This is what pushed him to break the deal in Hanoi.
It’s not surprising that negotiations broke down given the complexity of the issues and the gulf between the two sides. However, like many others, I thought there would perhaps be some modest progress at this summit centered on a verified freezing and eventual dismantlement of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for a degree of sanctions relief and/or a peace declaration. It seems that both sides stuck to their guns and maximized their demands rather than aimed for a more tangible middle ground. That said, we should bear in mind that we have yet to hear the North Korean version of events. Nonetheless, the absence of a deal was always the risk of a summit-driven approach without consensus found in careful, detailed working-level negotiations beforehand.
Does the abrupt conclusion of Thursday’s talks coupled with the announcement of no-deal signal a setback or a collapse in the U.S.-North Korea dialogue?
I think the deadlock situation will continue for a while as the gap between both sides cannot be narrowed down any time soon. Key difficulties still remain, such as the timing of the lifting sanctions and whether they should occur before or after the conclusion of denuclearization. Trump could be satisfied with a status-quo situation, as long as North Korea is not conducting nuclear or missile tests. There is a concern that Pyongyang could take an alternate path due to the fact that the U.S. does not appear to be providing them with the lift on sanctions that they want. Kim made reference to this alternate path in his New Year’s speech and hinted at relying on China more for economic support. North Korea might be in a hurry to make a call on whether or not to pursue this alternate path as the leader promised imminent economic growth to his citizens.
I don’t think it necessarily signals a collapse in dialogue. It seems that both parties do not want to return to an escalation of tensions and, for now at least, are prepared to maintain the status quo. While it is easy to get pessimistic in the absence of breakthroughs, I’m sure dialogue channels will remain open. However, Trump seems to also want to show that he can play hardball and walk away if deemed necessary. While this is aimed at putting the ball back in North Korea’s court, he will also likely have had in mind those critics at home who have accused him of being too soft.
Going forward, what steps will need to be taken to bridge the current impasse between the U.S and North Korea?
The U.S. and the DPRK should keep the negotiation process going at least at a practical level. I think the third party’s role is important to facilitate a resumption of future dialogues between the U.S. and the DPRK. Crisis management is also needed so as not to allow the situation to worsen or to fall in to a scenario of provocative actions, such as the increasing of sanctions or the implementation of further nuclear and missile tests.
It seems that either one side will either have to make a significant compromise or that both sides settle for more modest, incremental steps. While demanding a complete lifting of sanctions was unrealistic, so too were expectations of more significant denuclearization measures beyond what North Korea has already put on the table, namely the dismantlement of Yongbyon. As Secretary of State Pompeo also mentioned in his joint press conference with Trump after the summit, timing and sequencing are also important areas of disagreement. Working-level talks will need to be resumed to further narrow down and refine where the potential zone of bargaining lies acceptable to both sides. This will be a protracted process. South Korea will also likely play an important mediating role in trying to coax both sides towards a middle ground and remain invested in the negotiations.
What kind of impact will the outcome of the Hanoi Summit have on inter-Korean negotiations with South Korea?
Actually, this outcome is probably worst for South Korea than anyone else. All proposed inter-Korean projects will be delayed due to the unexpected outcome of this summit. North Korea will give more pressure to the Moon government to kick off the planned inter-Korean cooperation. President Moon will try to play a mediation role again in resuming the U.S.-DPRK summit. However, the government is likely to lose its momentum in pushing the process on as the political support is now severely hampered by negative factors both internally and externally. If the South Korean government fails to find a breakthrough soon, the conservative groups will gain more leverage in their opposition to Moon’s policy.
The Moon administration will be disappointed as inter-Korean cooperation, especially in economic areas, has limited room for deepening and expansion unless movement is made on denuclearization and the lifting of sanctions. There had been hopes for a historic fourth inter-Korean summit in Seoul. That may now be put on the backburner.