On 28 February 2019, the highly anticipated second summit (after Singapore earlier) between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Unin Hanoi, came to a dramatic end. There were too many expectations – Trump’s personalized diplomatic approach towards North Korea and Kim had further raised the mix of expectations and anxieties. The scheduled US-South Korea spring military drills were earlier called off to back the diplomacy.
Despite diplomatic niceties on the nature of the outcome, many consider Trump’s failure to convince Kim to de-nuclearize the North Korea (NK). There were no joint declaration, not even a joint statement. Post-summit, NK is reported to have resumed its nuclear activity.
The Singapore Expectations
The first meeting in Singapore where the two leaders met led to the signing of a joint communique. The communique agreed to follow up negotiations between high-level officials, security guarantees for North Korea along with new peaceful relations, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and recovery of soldiers' remains. However, it did not give details on how they were going to be achieved. Naturally, the expectations accrued for the Hanoi summit.
Many hoped that the Hanoi summit would extend the commitment of both countries towards better relations. "As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Trump had said earlier.
Was Hanoi a failure?
Trump exit the summit saying, ‘sometimes we have to walk away.’ One must not forget that he is a businessman after all and if anyone can understand how deals work, it would be him. The international media was quick to call the summit a ‘failure.’
Trump reportedly brushed off the opinions of his advisors. Apparently, Trump assumed that he would be able to do it on his own. There is an allegation that the North Korean hackers attacked ‘critical infrastructure’ in the US during the summit. Alongside this, was the court hearing of Michael Cohen against Trump, that damaged his position further within the US. Certainly, these factors have had a particular impact on the lapse of the summit.
The strategic interests of American presence in the region, is strongly based on the threat from DPRK. If a deal were to be made, then there is no relevance to the US presence in South Korea. Kim Jong Un has a survival challenge.
Kim has seen what the US has done in the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. The challenge to Kim Jong Un is both regime-survival and also the self-survival. There is clear understanding that DPRK can not entirely agree to all of the US demands without ensuring that their concerns are dealt with. This would mean that both the parties never had an outcome in mind either in the form of an agreement or a promise, from the Hanoi summit.
The need of ‘a Deal’
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” and this is true in the case of the dynamics in the relations between the two countries and both the leaders. Both Trump and Kim have very strong personalities. The two summits have been successful in bringing them together and encouraging interactions. This means that the two of them understand each other better than they did when they called each other ‘madman,’ but still it has not secured the promise of complete rollback on nuclear programme in exchange for removal of sanctions. Any deal that would have come from this summit would have been extremely challenging to implement. Do summits like these have gainers and losers? Hanoi became a display of progress in confidence building.
The ‘no deal’ is most certainly a relief to many in the security circles. Trump, as a negotiator tends to rush into deals. This blunt diplomacy would have been counterproductive if a deal were to be made. Neither Trump nor Kim can be taken on their word. The advisors of Trump did request for the summit to be postponed because they felt it was too early. And this is true in the case, that there were absolutely no sure signs of intention from the US to remove sanctions while DPRK closed down a couple of their test sites as a promise, but were quick to resume activities once the summit has ended.
Assessing the variables
After the Singapore summit, despite its success, the world did not see any other form of institutional interaction between the two countries. This could indicate that there are internal disagreements on both sides. On the side of US, it is evidently seen on all media platforms of people saying that a negotiation with DPRK is a waste of time and resources. The allegation that there was an attempt to hack into the US systems (if real) indicates that either it was a deliberate attempt to mock Trump’s efforts or someone inside DPRK did not want the summit to end well.
Lastly, one of the sure reasons for the lapse of the summit, is the attitude of the US towards the DPRK nuclear programme or nuclear programmes of rival states in general. What is called the, ‘hegemonic alliance ideology of nuclear deterrence,’ is seen as coercive. The China factor in the region and the power dynamics among the nations in East Asia seem to be misunderstood by Trump and hence, he did not manage to get the agreement he wanted from Kim Jong un.
The fact that DPRK has begun to work on its ‘Sohae’ long range rocket launch site, another grand ‘summit’ between Trump and Kim before 2020 elections is highly unlikely. This does not mean that the diplomatic efforts would die out. The uncertainties between the two leaders will remain, but will not see hatred.
The summit managed to bring out the intentions of both the parties. Negotiations in the summit seem to have abruptly ended but the Hanoi summit will nevertheless remain symbolic. Vietnam has inched closer to the US and Kim Jong un gained media attention for ‘fooling Trump.’
President Trump got the leverage against Kim Jong Un because the sanctions stay and this puts the burden on Kim. As a game play, both Trump and Kim get more political advantage now, than with a deal being signed. What the world would see is that the US walked out of the summit, but it infact did not coerce DPRK and that should be seen on a positive note.
But there are talks about the Sohae launch site which is located at Tongchang-ri, the location that was promised to be shut down in the Singapore summit. This site has been used in the past for satellite launches, which use ICBM technology that is banned under UN Security Council resolutions. This can be seen as a provocation attempt of DPRK by US and would be construed as another season of tensions.