The collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi was not universally expected. But the apparent lack of adequate preparation and willingness to compromise brought the event to a sudden halt. Clearly some reflection is needed on both sides.
Stumbling blocks to the US-North Korea process include a fundamental difference in focus, along with a fundamental difference in the sequencing of the process.
Washington takes the very narrow focus of denuclearization to a level bordering on obsession. Pyongyang seeks a broader normalization process that would include both diplomatic and economic elements.
Washington’s narrow denuclearization focus avoids the broader issue of Northeast Asia with the stabilization of the Korean peninsula and regional socio- economic development.
Washington’s narrow focus and associated maximalist demands interfere with an appropriate sequencing of the process.
For decades, diplomats and academics have spoken and written about “confidence building measures” as part of a serious process of arms control negotiations. Such a process not only implies but requires a step by step approach. This approach involves appropriate sequencing of the steps and appropriate timing.
The US side’s maximalist position precludes a reasonable and sustainable process. Hawks in Washington in the past have used maximalist demands to undermine and curtail negotiations with North Korea.
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about its demands. It began with maximalist rhetoric but in recent months suggested some flexibility.
There is clearly a difference of opinion between Trump advisors and John Bolton at the National Security Council. Other administration voices such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Special Representative to North Korean Stephen Biegun hint at a modicum of flexibility.
Because President Donald Trump had no political or diplomatic experience in his former business career, he is reliant on the advisors he has chosen for his administration. During his campaign he forcefully stated that he would reject Washington hawks but as president, he has surrounded himself with them.
Washington’s hawks are naturally negative when it comes to North Korea.
The military-industrial complex thinks about weapons sales and force projection. The plush Beltway think tanks collect large donations from corporate sponsors linked to the complex, not to mention from foreign governments. The calculated think tank anxiety expresses itself in worst case scenarios that support the bloated defense establishment. The US mainstream press adds to the political hysteria in Washington.
US policy on the North Korea issue, as well as on the China trade issue, is tightly controlled by the Trump White House. Thus, for North Korea policy, Bolton wields considerable influence. He is well known for his anti-North Korea animus and for undermining negotiations with North Korea during the George W. Bush presidency.
The degree to which Bolton influenced Trump’s suddenly break in the Hanoi summit is not clear. Trump appeared to be under the impression that the North Korea side demanded a halt to all US economic sanctions and stated that publicly.
But the North Korean side subsequently clarified their position, saying that they only asked for a partial halt. Pyongyang sees the negotiations as a sequential process that is step by step and that involves confidence building measures at each juncture.
What is apparent is that the two sides did not properly prepare for the summit. Normally, a well-prepared summit would lead to an agreement that would be finalized symbolically with the ceremonial signing of a joint statement.
Trump reportedly put forth a “grand bargain” that was maximalist in effect. Whether or not the president had been briefed that such an approach would not work is not yet known. So far, the North Korean side’s view of a sequential process involving step by step phases with confidence building measures is not compatible with a grand bargain approach.
Trump brusquely declined to agree on a statement and then cancelled the scheduled lunch that would have followed the ceremony. Trump returned to the US empty handed and appeared to fail in his personal diplomacy. On the other hand, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made the best of the situation and continued his visit to Vietnam.
What is to be done?
Certainly, reflection on both sides is necessary. Both sides should maintain contact and interaction to see how to move forward, despite the unexpected summit setback.
Already, US Secretary of State Pompeo is signaling a desire to continue the process through further contact. This is positive and to be welcomed.
President Trump is signaling that he does want to continue negotiations and that by no means has he ended the process. He has also signaled that he hopes South Korean president Moon Jai-in will play a key role as mediator to advance the overall process.
While this is positive, the US side must engage in some very deep reflection if it wants to achieve results that are sustainable. Such reflection must lead to the recognition that the obsession with a narrow focus on denuclearization is a dead end.
Denuclearization is one factor in the stabilization of the Korean peninsula, but it does not resolve a number of issues in the broader context of Northeast Asian security and development.
Washington must consider the broader Northeast Asian context in terms of regional diplomacy and regional economic integration.
For many, it is high time for the diplomatic legacy of the Korean War to be resolved with peace treaties. The relevant states are North and South Korea, the US, and China. A phased approach should be initiated that would ultimately lead to formal treaties.
While North and South Korea want to begin a resolution of this matter in small steps, the US has so far resisted. The resistance is due to a lack of an overall regional vision of the denuclearization process.
A similar lack of vision relates to regional socio-economic development in an East Asian context. This context directly involves not only the Koreas but also China, Russia, and Mongolia as bordering countries and regional stakeholders.
The aspiration for East Asian regional economic integration was highlighted by the inauguration of the Ulaanbaatar Process in June 2015. This civil society dialogue for peace and development in Northeast Asia proposes a relevant vision for the region. The US is an observer to the process and so is not uninformed.
The bottom line in the wake of the collapse of the Hanoi summit is that all is not yet lost. Recovery from the setback is possible and desirable.
The US and the North Korean sides must undertake some deep reflection and must continue contacts despite the summit coming up short. A broad regional focus on the peace and development of Northeast Asia is essential to a positive outcome.