Kim-Trump Summit: Why Did Personal Diplomacy Fail in Hanoi and What Comes Next?

It appears that Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will continue to negotiate despite the Hanoi setback. In the best case scenario, this may lead to a compromise that, while not securing the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, will nevertheless reduce geopolitical risks linked with the country's nuclear program. In any event, the mere fact that the US and North Korea are holding talks is having a positive influence on the regional situation and should be praised, according to Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.

Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un prefer personal diplomacy and distrust their own bureaucrats, including diplomats, to a certain extent. Consequently, their summits are not merely ritualistic but have real stakes. The assumption is that the two leaders will make a strategic decision which will subsequently be formalized by working groups.

North Korea actively utilises this approach, probably hoping that President Trump might agree to terms seen as unacceptable by professional US negotiators during one-on-one negotiations. But it has backfired in Hanoi.

Hanoi Summit Misfires
Artyom Lukin
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.
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The terms proposed by North Korea included completely eliminating its Nuclear Scientific Research Center in Yongbyon. In exchange, the US was expected to lift all current sanctions (Donald Trump said this at a news conference) or just the so-called sectoral sanctions, imposed after 2016, that impair North Korea’s civilian economic activity, according to the North Korean side’s documents unveiled after the summit.

Yongbyon is not the only North Korean facility involved in developing and manufacturing nuclear weapons. The country now has at least one more center with comparable capacities producing highly enriched uranium. Additionally, Yongbyon personnel do not develop or manufacture missile systems. Therefore, acceptance of North Korean terms would mean that Pyongyang would retain a considerable share of the research and production capacity needed to expand its nuclear arsenal, as well as the entire research and industrial capacity for manufacturing missiles, including inter-continental ballistic missiles. Moreover, the proposed deal did not include existing nuclear warheads and fissile materials. It is not surprising, therefore, that President Trump rejected it.

Most likely, the proposal was an opening bid. Pyongyang hardly expected the US to agree, although, quite possibly, it had some hope in light of President Trump’s famous unpredictability.

North Korean’s response serves as indirect evidence of the fact that the proposal of Pyongyang was merely the basis for further bargaining. Documents released after the summit contain numerous references to the fact that North Korea is willing to modify its position.

Although both sides admitted that the summit had failed and declined to issue a joint statement, the wording of documents that were prepared by both sides is measured and friendly. Both Washington and Pyongyang expressed willingness to continue negotiating, although at the level of working groups, as well as confidence that the talks will resume in the near future.

Second Trump-Kim Summit: Started with a Bang, Ended in a Fizzle
Konstantin Asmolov
In a recent piece I gamed out predictions for the second summit of the US and North Korean leaders while preparing to analyze the final statement that came out of the summit, as I did with the previous documents of this kind. Regrettably, this time I will have to figure out where my prediction went wrong instead.
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North Korea needs these talks because they allow Pyongyang to buy time and reduce the chances that US hawks will steer Washington's North Korea policy toward confrontation, threats and probably the use of force. North Korea might agree to a compromise deal stipulating a certain reduction of its nuclear capacity in exchange for substantial political and economic concessions on the part of the US, South Korea and other concerned parties.

Donald Trump sees the North Korean issue as important in the domestic political context. Since the US-North Korean summit in Singapore, President Trump and his supporters have been insisting that he has managed to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, an achievement that eluded his predecessors. Real or imaginary success on the North Korean track is meant to strengthen his reputation as a peacemaker and to boost domestic support.

This means that the negotiations will probably go on, despite the Hanoi fiasco.

According to the US, the official purpose of the talks is to achieve the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea. This task is a priori unrealistic because no economic benefits, nor any political and even military pressure, will persuade North Korean leaders to renounce nuclear weapons. The North Korean elite believe that nuclear weapons are the only reliable guarantee of the security of their state and regime. Nevertheless, in the best case scenario, the negotiations can lead to a compromise that, while not securing the nuclear disarmament of North Korea, will nevertheless reduce geopolitical risks linked with the country's nuclear program. In any event, the mere fact that the US and North Korea are holding talks is having a positive influence on the regional situation and should be praised.

Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi: From Hate to Love to Hate
On February 27-28 2019, Vietnam hosted the second summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. It did not cause the same frenzy as their first meeting. Many asked: will Hanoi become a repetition of Singapore?
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