Hanoi failure must not unravel process

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and US President Donald Trump shaking hands at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS

The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Hanoi in Vietnam turned out to be a damp squib. It ended without an agreement. Worse, the summit was cut short. The two sides have blamed each other for the collapse. According to Trump, Kim was unwilling to freeze all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons but wanted the US to lift sanctions “in their entirety.” This was unacceptable to Trump and hence the summit ended. North Korea has since clarified that it had asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. Media reports indicate that US National Security Adviser John Bolton, a hardliner on North Korea, was the main spoiler. In the run-up to the Trump-Kim meeting, there was much talk of an agreement being reached at Hanoi. This was an unrealistic expectation. It is disappointing, however, that the two sides were unable to report even some progress on denuclearisation of North Korea and the lifting of US sanctions on the country. They could have reached at least a limited deal or an interim one. A date for the next summit could have been announced.

It is a relief that Trump and Kim did not walk out of the summit hurling abuse at each other. Trump’s description of the talks with Kim as “very friendly” suggests that their personal equation has not broken down. While this bodes well for the future, the Hanoi summit underscores the limitations of bromances in international diplomacy. Getting on well helps leaders jump-start a peace process but this cannot by itself sustain a process of negotiations. Trump has often boasted of his skills in deal-making. However, for two countries to reach agreement on a complex issue like nuclear weapons, more than just deal-making skills is needed. It is not quite like buying out a rival businessman. Although Kim is returning to Pyongyang without having got the US to lift sanctions, he isn’t going home empty-handed. The much-isolated leader managed to shake hands with the President of the world’s only superpower. He will be able to boast about that at home. A deal with North Korea would have given Trump a significant policy achievement, but that proved elusive.

So where do things stand post-Hanoi? There is a possibility of the talks process slowly dying out. That would be unfortunate. It is therefore important that the international community acts swiftly to put a multi-power approach in place. Certainly, after two summits, the US-North Korea relationship is in a better space than it was a year ago. But things could deteriorate quickly post-Hanoi, as the two erratic leaders scramble to deal with the fallout of a failed summit.

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Hanoi failure must not unravel process

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