Whilst I always expected to write an in-depth article following the second monumental meeting between the President of the United States, Donald Trump and Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, Kim Jong Un, I certainly didn’t expect to have to title it ‘What went wrong?’. Expectations were riding high in the days leading up to the meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam. There was talk about Pyongyang employing the ‘Vietnam model’ for economic liberalisation and Donald Trump made it clear that the DPRK could become an economic powerhouse in the region once denuclearisation was complete. With working-level negotiations having stalled since the Singapore summit last year this meeting was meant to put the nuclear talks back on track and produce some significant results. It was made clear that if the summit produced a vague statement like in Singapore it would likely be judged a failure. Nobody expected events to turn out how they did.
The Hanoi summit began on the 27th of February 2019
Let’s start at the beginning. There were very few concrete goals for the summit set out beforehand, possibly to protect the US administration from embarrassment if it failed to achieve them. There were however a series of aims which the US negotiating team, headed by Mike Pompeo and Stephen Biegun, had made clear were top priorities for the summit; these included:
a) A roadmap for future negotiations. One of the key agreements which has to be made in order to achieve a fully verifiable denuclearisation strategy is a plan of action which produces a timeline for both sides to follow. Getting an agreed framework would mean it would be difficult for one side to back out of the process unilaterally and make future meetings run more efficiently since they would have a clear set of aims to work towards.
b) A declaration. One of the biggest aims of the entire process has been to try and get Pyongyang to release a declaration of all of its weapons, delivery systems, launch sites and enrichment facilities along with any other sites important to the weapons program. This has been a sticking point throughout negotiations since the DPRK views this as a possible future ‘target list’ for the US to use should relations sour in the future.
c) Yongbyon.The Yongbyon nuclear facility is the heart of the nuclear program in North Korea. Whilst it is not the only enrichment site in the country it is the largest and most significant. Many analysts expected some agreement to be reached regarding the verifiable dismantling of the Yongbyon site in exchange for concessions from the US. This would limit Pyongyang’s ability to produce the fissile material needed for their weapons program.
d) Sanctions. Perhaps the most pressing issue for Pyongyang; the harsh sanctions regime has stifled their economic growth and has therefore become a major priority for them in ongoing negotiations. Whilst there are signs that the international coalition is weakening on imposing these sanctions there is still a significant incentive for Pyongyang to push for the removal of some or all of these restrictions. This is a major sticking point since Washington has shown itself to be unwilling to lift sanctions before denuclearisation is achieved. This is something which has been flagged as a potential obstacle for negotiators since the beginning.
e) Liason offices. One of the more recent suggestions is that of establishing liason offices in each country. These act as de-facto embassies and would be a starting point for the normalisation of relations between the two countries. Improved relations between the two is something that has been of major importance to Pyongyang and was the main theme during Ri Yong Ho’s speech to the UN General Assembly in 2018.
f) Formal peace treaty. One of the most significant and symbolic results expected from this summit was an agreement to end the Korean War. The conflict ended in an armistice agreement in 1953 although a formal peace treaty was never signed. This idea cropped up in the aftermath of the previous summit in Singapore and has been a controversial subject due to Pyongyang’s demand that the peace treaty not be used as leverage by Washington during negotiations. However, the hype surrounding the Hanoi summit meant that an end to the war seemed like a realistic possibility.
The bulk of the top-level discussions took place on the 28th
So what happened during the summit? Well, Marshall Kim Jong Un arrived in Hanoi by train and spent his first day in Vietnam visiting the staff in the DPRK embassy. Unlike the previous summit in Singapore the trip was well publicised by the Korean Central News Agency on a daily basis and reports of the embassy visit were published the same day by Rodong Sinmun. Following the arrival of President Trump the two leaders met at the Metropole Hotel for the customary handshake in front of a small press pool. What followed was a 1-on-1 meeting between the President and Marshall before a social dinner. There was little negotiating done on this first day and both leaders retired to their hotels after the dinner was finished. The next day, the 28th, was the day when most of the high-level meetings were scheduled. Similar to the Singapore summit there was a formal signing and press conference built into the official summit schedule. Things began tremendously with Marshall Kim Jong Un even answering a foreign journalist’s question directly, an historic first for the famously secretive leader.
The two leaders were seen walking around the site between meetings
The morning was taken up with high-level discussions between the leaders and was meant to be followed by a working lunch, the signing ceremony and then a press conference. This is where things took a turn for the worse. Details of the timing of events is still hazy but it seems journalists were told that the lunch had been pushed back and the press conference had been brought forward. There was an atmosphere of general confusion which was exacerbated when the leaders motorcades arrived to pick them up well ahead of schedule. It became clear that something had not gone to plan and the working lunch and signing ceremony were effectively cancelled. Eventually the White House confirmed that the negotiations had reached an impasse and that the two sides had failed to make a deal.
It was announced that the press conference had been brought forward to 2pm local time and that President Trump would leave the country soon after. Between the announcement from the White House and the start of the press briefing there was rampant speculation as to what had caused the collapse of the negotiations. The President made it clear, in his usual fashion, that he considered the meeting to be a huge success and that the two sides had made great progress but had simply failed to go far enough to make a concrete agreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated he was disappointed but neither of the two men made any suggestion that the talks had been a failure; this was not the opinion voiced by many analysts in the minutes that followed.
President Trump and Mike Pompeo took questions from the press during the conference.
So what caused the collapse of the summit? At the time of writing we only have the statements made by the President during his Q&A with the press in the immediate aftermath of the summit to go off; however, it seems as though sanctions were the sticking point. Many analysts and experts in the past year have made it clear that there are fundamental differences between Washington and Pyongyang’s respective ideas of what ‘denuclearisation’ actually means. This is something we saw demonstrated dramatically in Hanoi. It seems as though the DPRK had demanded all sanctions be lifted in exchange for the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear site. This is something which was incredibly left-field and likely hadn’t been discussed during working-level talks which some took to suggest the cavalier move was a calculated tactic by Pyongyang. Donald Trump characterised the situation as the US ‘walking away from a bad deal’. This may be true from their perspective; the deal suggested by Pyongyang was an incredibly bad deal for the US since Yongbyon is not the only enrichment site in the DPRK and removing all sanctions would weaken their negotiating position
If this was a planned strategy by Pyongyang, what benefits are there? Effectively torpedoing the summit might seem counter-productive at first however it works out as a winning tactic for the DPRK. First off, the summit has provided a venue for the country to show the world that it is dealing with the most powerful nation state in the world from an equal standing point, that of a nuclear power. This is something Trump was criticised for when he accepted the invitation to the first summit, playing into the hands of Pyongyang and giving them credibility as a nuclear-armed nation. Secondly, they got all the publicity without having to take any steps towards dismantling their nuclear program. After all the hype surrounding the summit they have not been forced to hand over information about their enrichment facilities, provide a roadmap for negotiations or dismantle Yongbyon. They have managed all this whilst still portraying themselves as keen to sit down at the table do business, a tactic which presents the US in a much more negative light as the country which stood up and walked away from the negotiating table. This may also be a good enough reason for China to start lifting more sanctions since they have been working closely with the DPRK over the past year and may argue that Pyongyang has been attempting to make progress but has been negotiating with the bulwark that is the United States. Some have suggested that the demands made by Pyongyang at the negotiating table are a sign that they are attempting to shift the goalposts; it seems that the Korean side had no intention of surrendering all of their nuclear arsenal and the language employed by the President in the weeks leading up to the summit, and especially during the press conference after the meeting, suggested that they may be shifting towards allowing Pyongyang to maintain their arsenal. If this is the case then the next major goal for Marshall Kim Jong Un would be for Trump to acknowledge his country as a nuclear power. At the time of writing it hasn’t even been 24 hours since the summit ended and almost all experts have concluded that this is a victory for the DPRK… again.
Perhaps on the other hand, this was not a plan. If the DPRK genuinely expected Washington to remove all the unilateral sanctions that have been placed on it over the years then it shows just how wide the rift is between the two countries despite having been locked in negotiations for almost a year. If this was just a power-play which backfired the DPRK hasn’t lost anything it’s just not moved forward on the sanctions issue. One of the more sinister issues surrounding the events of the past 2 days is linked to a press release from KCNA published a few months ago which made it clear that if the US refuses to lift sanctions the DPRK would be forced to take a ‘new path’ which many took to mean a continuation of the nuclear and missile tests. This would be a monumental step backwards and undo all the good work that has been achieved over the past year.
Empty dining room after the leaders cancelled the working lunch.
So what next? Well first of all we don’t know what the DPRK’s position is on this issue. By their nature KCNA do not publish articles immediately following live events and so many analysts are waiting for tomorrow’s edition of Rodong Sinmun, one of the state newspapers, to find out what the official position of the DPRK is on the matter. If they strike a hostile tone and blame Washington for failing at the summit then we may see a turn back towards the violent rhetoric which engulfed the airwaves during 2017. If they do not mention the unfavourable outcome of the meeting or instead brush over the issues then many will assume that Pyongyang is still willing to press on with negotiations. Perhaps the biggest victim of the summit is Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea. As the de-facto architect of the first summit and the man responsible for getting the talks back on track in September when he visited Pyongyang he saw these negotiations as a chance to advance his agenda and start working on numerous inter-Korean economic projects. Many such projects have been impossible to implement so far due to sanctions; It seems that those joint activities will have to wait for now.
What is for sure is that the entire US negotiating team, including the President, have just had a taste of Pyongyang playing hardball; either that or we are witnessing the entire process falling apart just as it has done for previous administrations, continuing the vicious cycle of rising and falling tensions on the peninsula. The only thing we can say for certain right now is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems to hold all the cards.