The Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi ended up in a breakdown of talks. Many factors were cited for its abrupt end. US President Donald J. Trump gave a press conference and said that Pyongyang wanted the US to give up all sanctions in exchange for the dismantling of the Yongbyon site. At that point, he said he had to walk away because the US wanted North Korea to take out additional uranium enrichment site/s that they had spotted through their intelligence. However, the abrupt ending of the summit was apparently amicable, according to the Trump administration as it left open a path for further talks.
The North Korea side had a different take. They denied asking for all sanctions to be lifted and instead articulated the lifting of 5 out of 11 sanctions in return for their dismantlement of the Yongbyon facilities. Before the breakdown, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un himself told the press that he was there with some confidence of signing a deal. Many had expected some form of peace deal to be inked at the end of the second Trump-Kim summit, but were disappointed when both leaders left without having lunch, sparking off worries that the breakdown was less than amicable.
The breakdown of the talks left South Korea President Moon Jae-In vulnerable to critics, especially those from the conservative and right leaning spectrums. Many saw him as the real victim/loser/detriment receiver of the breakdown, given that he had staked his political career on a successful outcome. He was pushing hard for the summit after the first one in Singapore. He worked hard with Kim’s sister to bring about the second summit.
Some media reports also mentioned that Moon had even prepared a speech to talk about inter-Korean ties in the aftermath of a successful second Trump-Kim summit scenario. The mood leading up the Trump-Kim talk was in fact very positive and Kim himself reiterated that he would not be there if there was no intention to denuclearize, something confirming his New Year address which also mentioned the desire to denuclearize.
Commentators, experts and journalists appeared to indicate that the Chinese and the Japanese leaderships were relieved with the outcome, as they were worried about a declaration of peace and/or other deals hastily put together that may dent their national interests. Possible reasons for the Chinese to feel relief included a nagging fear of seeing US troops near their border and also loss of a North Korean buffer zone vis-à-vis a US alliance network. For the Japanese, there were alleged fears of a hasty deal that kept short and medium range ballistic missiles with possible chemical/biological/nuclear warheads intact simultaneous with a withdrawal or reduction of US troops in South Korea/Japan. This was of course speculation on the part of the event watchers.
Overall, both countries did profess their full support for peace on the Korean Peninsula and both countries were constantly briefed by the South Korean Moon administration about the progress of the talks. In addition, Washington D.C., Tokyo and Seoul constantly shared intelligence on the latest developments in the Trump-Kim talks while Beijing no doubt had constant updates from Pyongyang about the progress.
In other words, there is very little leeway for surprises. Beijing lent its maximum support by apparently lending the Chinese Premier’s plane for the first Trump-Kim summit while allowing Kim to travel through 4000 km of Chinese territory from Dandong to Dong Dang to reach the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. Many observers were however surprised when Kim made no stopovers in Beijing on the way back to Pyongyang.
Trump won accolades in his domestic political arena for walking away. Democrats were relieved there were no hasty deals that diminished US national interests. Conservatives, Republicans, right leaning political elites were relieved that Trump proved to the American public that he was not prepared to give up American interests lightly and won praise or/and relief in a bipartisan manner. Trump won this rare appraisal from the liberals, moderates, left and progressives in the midst of the ongoing trail of Michael Cohen which was telecast “live” almost at the same time as the lead-up to the Trump-Kim summit. Trump even suggested later that the Cohen proceedings may have been a factor in the collapse of the Trump-Kim talks.
In the coming months, there will probably be low-key behind-the-doors talks between official at different levels in response to the no-deal outcome of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi.
The way forward has been made more complicated. On the one hand, both leaders had kept the door open for further talks. Shortly after Kim’s return to Pyongyang after the Trump-Kim summit, reports came out regarding “manmade” explosions in North Korea, centered around Sohae. It caused a magnitude 2.0 to 2.5 earthquake that was detected outside North Korea. This triggered Trump to say that he would be “very, very disappointed” if it were true. This was perhaps an early sign that the second Trump-Kim summit had given rise to specific challenges. It would have been an unintended outcome of the no-deal scenario because, in the aftermath of the summit, all stakeholders tried their best to salvage the situation.
Trump stressed how amicable it was that they had parted ways, opening the doors for further talks, although his detractors noted how the lunch after the no-deal outcome was skipped as Trump headed home. This was a negative point for many journalists and observers present at the summit site. Kim also noted how the door was opened for further talks. He and his administration further emphasized that they had asked for partial, not full, lifting of sanctions. But one telling sign was perhaps when representative of his administration mentioned to the effect that Kim “lost his will” for sustained talks.
Combined this “loss of will” narrative with the “alternative path” narrative, Kim is perhaps keeping his cards under his sleeves, in case he needs to turn to an alternative major power for survival. Nevertheless, Moon’s administration is continuing to work hard and has suggested novel formats like a trilateral summit where South Korea may potentially and possibly play a more intermediary role between Pyongyang and Washington D.C./Trump administration. Moon may be conserving his resources to deal with any domestic responses from the conservatives and other critics of his policy towards Pyongyang. It is still premature to assume that his approach is dead in its tracks. Instead, it has hit a plateau which can either be overcome or pose a permanent obstacle.
In the coming months, there will probably be low-key behind-the-doors talks between official at different levels in response to the no-deal outcome of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. One advantage of the second Trump-Kim summit is that both sides are now more aware of each other’s bottom-lines. The US has clarified its Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) position into the initial scenario of Pyongyang dismantling Yongbyon as well as one or two other non-declared uranium enrichment sites. Trump decided to share US intelligence on these sites as well as their information on the Otto Warmbier case with Kim, who appeared surprised and claimed he did not know about these cases.
Such frank sharing between the two top leaders appear to lay the foundation for future talks, since the points of discussion are now itemized. Such sharing can be a turning point for Washington-Pyongyang relations since they have now frankly communicated at the topmost levels. Aside from this gain, the Trump-Kim summit also has collateral benefits and spinoffs. Trump managed to sign a USD 21 billion deal with Vietnam, among which Boeing will supply planes to the country’s various airlines. Trump also sealed solid Washington-Hanoi relations that were spearheaded by former President Barrack Obama, repairing post-Vietnam War relations while facing common geopolitical challenges.
Kim gained a major propaganda coup with domestic audiences seeing him standing side by side with the leader of the most powerful country on earth. He managed to replicate the 4000 km journey through China that his grandfather made and enjoyed regal treatment from the Vietnamese. Kim also observed the Doi Moi reforms that made Vietnam a fast-growing economy in East Asia. Kim went back to Pyongyang a status-enhanced leader. Similarly, Trump went back to the US vindicated, proving his critics wrong that he was out for a quick deal.