Though most observers of the US-DPRK dialogue doubted how productive the second Trump-Kim meeting would be, onlookers around the world expected that the Hanoi summit, held on February 27-28, would at least result in the signing of a new document based of the Singapore joint declaration. Many shook their heads in total disbelief when the summit ended with nothing achieved. One common question is: what happened and why? Answers to this question may help determine how much further the US-DPRK dialogue can go and if the Korean nuclear issue can be eventually resolved.
Travelling thousands of miles and under intense international spotlight, the two leaders came to Hanoi to cut a deal- sign a critical agreement to consolidate gains made thus far. Success would have depended on two points: Whether each leader came to the summit with a genuine desire to sign an agreement, and whether the two sides were able to compromise on core provisions tantamount to the negotiation process. The first point serves as a basis upon which the dialogue can be sustainable and move forward towards the ultimate solution of the Korean nuclear issue. The second point holds the key to achieving substantive outcome in negotiations aimed at urging the DPRK to take steps towards denuclearization. From information released so far, it seems that the direct cause of the failed summit was the lack of compromise on the DPRK taking further steps towards denuclearization in exchange for a US agreement to lift UN sanctions.
However, the two sides differ on the details of what caused the negotiations to collapse. Mr. Trump, at his press conference right after the talks, explained, “[The DPRK] wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn't do that…They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn't give up all of the sanctions for that.”
The DPRK delegation left the meeting site quickly after the breakdown and gave a short press conference only around midnight of the 28th. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, in response to Trump’s comments, pointed out explicitly that they had made a realistic proposal to dismantle all nuclear facilities at Yongbyon under the supervision of US and DPRK experts in exchange for a partial lift of sanctions. Ri stressed, “In detail, we proposed the United States lift five sanctions resolutions – which were adopted between 2016 and 2017 and impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people – among 11 UN sanctions resolutions all together.” Mr. Ri also mentioned that during the negotiations, the DPRK offered to discontinue any more nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests to allay US concerns. Yet, due to excessive demand by the US side, an opportunity that may never come again was wasted.
The versions offered by the two sides, though different, carry important meanings. Trump’s version seems to suggest that the DPRK was to blame for making excessive demands. The DPRK version indicates that their offer was both reasonable and practical, suggesting that Trump caused the breakdown by upping the ante at the last moment. Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said at the press conference, “I have a feeling that Chairman Kim may have lost the will” to negotiate with Trump.
Which side should we believe? In the view of this writer, the DPRK version is more credible. When assessing the protocol arrangements, the positive signals released since Kim’s arrival in Hanoi demonstrate that the DPRK was expecting to sign a joint document with the US at this summit. They believed that based on its judgment of prior negotiations, both sides were adequately ready for this outcome. According to US and ROK media reports, the US and DPRK had finished drafting the “Hanoi Declaration”, leaving just a few details for the leaders to decide on at the summit, including the issue of dismantling the nuclear facility at another site. But because of US overreach, Trump lost an opportunity that he might not see again.
Apparently, Trump made a demand unacceptable to the DPRK, which was beyond Kim’s expectation. Kim must have felt that he was taken for a ride. The question people hasten to ask is whether it was Kim that had misread the American position in the first place or whether it was Trump that had changed his mind at the last moment. In the view of this writer, the answer lies somewhere in between. Given Trump’s well-known character, it is very possible that Trump increased his demands in negotiations with Kim on his way to Hanoi. After all, toughening one’s position after raising his opponent’s expectation for a deal is nothing new to Trump and the man’s usual whimsical style of decision-making.
Styles and tactics aside, it is beyond any doubt that Trump wanted fervently to have his deal with the DPRK sealed and thus secure him a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the Korean nuclear issue is no easy matter. History shows that factors challenging Trump’s skills as a balancer are far more complex than any trade negotiations the US has entered in the past year. It is an issue that involves military strategy, regional security, major-country diplomacy and many other areas confronting the United States, areas that he has little knowledge of . Moreover, it’s an issue that Trump must not only resist doubts from establishment Americans of all quarters but also fend off tacit opposition by his political allies. At the same time, being vulnerable to domestic politics, the president’s ability to make decisions on the Korean nuclear issue is directly related to the wax and wane of his political standing at home.
In June last year, Trump displayed great confidence by accepting Kim’s pledge that was “devoid of substance” in Singapore and signing the joint document with the DPRK, despite mounting criticisms at home. He was able to do that largely due to his high popularity in the wake of tax cuts legislations. Unfortunately, the midterm elections last fall deprived the Republicans of the control of the House and caused Trump’s political standing to weaken considerably. While the Hanoi Summit was in full swing, Washington was focused on a congressional hearing regarding the President’s downfall. The situation has changed entirely. Trump now must ensure that his second joint document with the DPRK will strengthen his hand both diplomatically and politically.
People may still remember that a few weeks ago Trump unexpectedly remarked that he was not in a hurry for DPRK denuclearization, which, in retrospect, can be interpreted to prepare the public for what may happen at the Hanoi Summit. Perhaps, Kim was too impressed about the outcome of the Singapore Summit to take note of Trump’s special political needs and its potential impact on the US positioning at this summit.