Fiasco in Hanoi

Fiasco in Hanoi

TRUMP-KIM SUMMIT

US President Donald Trump (R) walks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during the second US-North Korea summit at Hanoi on February 28, 2019. AFP

The expectations for a resolution on denuclearising the Korean Peninsula during the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi on February 27 and 28 abruptly ended with no outcome, though both sides claimed to continue the dialogue. Plan for a joint statement was scraped.

Given the experience of the first summit at Singapore in June 2018, the hopes were highly misplaced as either side was unwilling to concede or soften their much stated stances. When Trump declared a deadlock by stating that North Korea wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety to which the US was unwilling before flying back to Washington, in an exceptionally rare meeting with reporters, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho summoned the press in Hanoi at midnight and denied the White House account that Pyongyang was only seeking a complete deal.    

According to Ri, North Korea had offered to “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear production facilities” at its main complex in Yongbyon if the US dropped sanctions “that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of the people” and reiterated that its offer will “never change”.

In contrast, the North Korean state media which less than two years ago was branding Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard”, offered a more conciliatory take by saying that the summit had been productive. The Korean Central News Agency observed that Trump and Kim “agreed to continue having productive talks to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the improvement of US-North Korea relations”.

As it transpired, both sides used language so that they can make their case to the world in their favour. Like Ri, Trump too hoped to see Kim again soon without offering any details. 

The outcome in Hanoi fell far short of hopes. Earlier, the Singapore summit, which marked a historic first, resulted only in a vague commitment to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Despite both sides claiming the summit a success, progress was stalled with both sides disagreeing on what that means.

As if to boost North Korea’s pride, though Trump frequently talked about the prospect of a brighter economic future for a nuclear-free North Korea and that the country has awesome potential that was not enough to influence Kim to change his position a bit. The truism is that the summit was a major failure and showed the limits of top-level summitry with not enough staff and time to work out a deal.

While Kim stayed on in Hanoi for a state visit, Trump departed and called from Air Force One to Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, both US allies, to discuss the summit. Though Tokyo has regarded the US-led diplomatic push with Pyongyang with suspicion and sought to keep its interests on the table in the discussions by coordinating with its ally Washington, a hawkish Abe backed Trump for his decision to make no easy compromises, with the summit ending with no deal.

A key issue or Japan is the fate of several of its citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents. Despite Tokyo’s claim that Trump raised this issue during discussions with Kim, there is no clarity on what exactly transpired as denuclearisation issue was the main bone of contention. Abe has often repeated his desire to hold his own face-to-face meeting with Kim. Though he has mooted several times the prospect of a summit with Kim to resolve the long-standing abduction issue, neither Tokyo nor Pyongyang has taken any concrete steps towards a summit.

Seoul was disappointed over summit failure but remained hopeful for progress in future. Trump is aware of Moon’s efforts to arrange the summits and therefore expressed regrets for not striking a deal with Kim. As if to save face, while expressing disappointment, the presidential Blue House insisted that the two countries made more progress even without an agreement. Seoul was hopeful that the Hanoi meeting allowed the two leaders to better understand each other so that the possibility of a breakthrough in the future remains bright.

China, North Korea’s long-time ally, saw the Hanoi summit as an “important step” towards denuclearisation. While voicing understanding, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said “solving this problem is definitely not something that can be achieved overnight”. Being North’s sole major ally, Kim travelled for more than two days by train across China on his way to Hanoi. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a fourth time in January, showing that Beijing retains a key role in the diplomatic shuffle.

No bonhomie

Following the historic first meeting in Singapore in June 2018 that produced a vaguely worded statement about denuclearisation, the Hanoi summit was a disappointment for analysts as it failed to put substance ahead of bonhomie.

Viewed objectively, the show of bonhomie in Vietnam, not withstanding no summit outcome and a far cry from 2017 when Trump mocked Kim as “rocket man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests, can be open to interpretations on summit outcome. Any optimism was clearly misplaced as Kim was not expected to concede without substantial concessions. If Trump expected to clinch a historic accord on his own terms, it showed his diplomatic immaturity.

So what comes next? Now the adversaries have entered a period of deep uncertainty, if not fresh crisis. Despite much hype of optimism, everyone went home empty-handed without a clear picture where they are heading in the future.

Diplomacy still remains the best possible option as North Korea has promised not to resume missile testing and the US has announced a freeze on join exercises with South Korea. Since this goodwill-building proposal of dual suspension by China is in place, the door for future must not remain closed. But that is a long haul at present.

(The writer is Lok Sabha Research Fellow)