The meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un, held on 27-28 February in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, was a disappointment. The parties announced that they had failed to reach an agreement. According to the post-summit statements made by Donald Trump and DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, the main stumbling block was the price that the North Koreans demanded in exchange for the dismantling of their nuclear centre in Yongbyon.
Pyongyang insisted that the Americans should lift their economic sanctions against the DPRK, which were detailed in five resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council in 2016 and 2017. These five resolutions form the basis of the current international sanctions against North Korea, and bar virtually all types of trade and investment cooperation with the state. The abolition of these resolutions would actually lift the economic blockade against the DPRK. However, according to the Americans, even if Pyongyang shuts down the Yongbyon centre, it won’t be enough to free North Korea from the sanctions. The nuclear science and technology complex in Yongbyon serves as the historical core of the North Korean nuclear programme. According to US data, however, North Korea has significant nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment plants. The North Koreans, apparently, were not ready to negotiate on them. There are still accumulated reserves of nuclear weapons materials and warheads.
In addition, contrary to expectations, no decisions were reached at the Hanoi Summit on the signing of a declaration to formally end the Korean War of 1950-53 (now only a truce remains in force between the parties and formally they are still in a state of war). Trump and Kim also failed to agree on the establishment of diplomatic liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington.
The two leaders travelled to Hanoi clearly hoping to sign at least some kind of agreement, a draft of which was prepared during the US-North Korean negotiations at the ad hoc level in the weeks leading up to the summit. But, apparently, at the last moment something went wrong. What exactly happened is not yet known. One of the parties could have made exaggerated last-minute demands, or the other party could have refused a previously agreed-upon compromise solution. Who “jumped” away from the previously-reached agreement – Kim or Trump? Could external factors and players have influenced the summit’s failure? For example, could China have put pressure on Kim dissuading him from reaching a deal with the Americans? Did Trump’s willingness to sign an agreement with Kim affect what is happening in Washington, where his former close associates are testifying against the American president? We cannot exclude the fact that there was no ready-made preliminary agreement before the Hanoi summit, and Trump and Kim had expected to reach an agreement directly during their personal meeting. The rationale remains a subject of conjecture.
In any event, it is impossible to write off the meeting in Hanoi as a complete failure. During the press conference, Trump strongly emphasized that he maintains good relations with Kim Jong-un and that the parties had agreed to continue their dialogue at the working level. Trump also said that the DPRK had confirmed the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, which has been in force since the end of 2017. Apparently, neither Trump nor Kim wants to return to the 2017 crisis, when the threat of war seemed real. But the inability to reach at least some kind of agreement, however modest, has led to a sense of a deadlock. If it is impossible to find a way out within a reasonable period of time, the situation may begin to deteriorate and lead to a new crisis. Either of the two sides could topple the current arrangement. The Americans could begin to blame the North Koreans in connection with the ongoing nuclear missile potential build-up by the DPRK. Pyongyang, in turn, could tire of waiting for a softening of sanctions and resume missile tests.
In this political and diplomatic process, Russia continues to play the role of an un-indifferent, but outside observer. The Kremlin is busy with the Middle East and does not want to get involved in Korean issues, and has left the matter entirely to Beijing. Since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, Vladimir Putin has held eleven meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, but has not met with the North Korean leader, while Xi Jinping has received Kim in China four times. The most that Moscow can contribute to the denuclearisation process is good advice. However, the North Koreans do not need advice. They need sanctions lifted and cash injections. Only the Americans, together with the Chinese, can resolve such issues now.