The sceptics were proved right when the much anticipated second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un ended without any agreement in Hanoi on February 28. Their first meeting on June 12 last year in Singapore had resulted in a formal agreement, howsoever incomplete on details, in which Chairman Kim had agreed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in return for security guarantees from the United States. The absence of any definite outcome from the second summit is disappointing both to the principal parties and the international community.
On the first day of the summit on February 27, the North Korean leader had said: “There is a look of distrust and misunderstanding which has hindered our journey to the destination. But we have been able to overcome all such obstacles and we meet again in Hanoi.” Alas, his hopes were belied. In preparation for the Hanoi summit, there had been several rounds of negotiations between US officials led by secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the North Korean chief negotiator Kim Yong-chol, but clearly the chasm between the two sides was too deep to be crossed. Why the sherpas allowed the two principals to meet without a clear understanding of the outcome is surprising.
Going into the Hanoi summit, the primary objective of the United States was to set North Korea firmly on an irreversible course towards denuclearisation, starting with a list of all the North’s nuclear facilities and an agreed timeline for their dismantling or disabling. The foremost objective of North Korea was to get the crippling sanctions lifted while conceding as little as possible immediately on the journey towards denuclearisation. The third common but minor objective was to move towards a closure of the 1950-53 Korean War, which had ended in an armistice.
The Hanoi summit ended rather abruptly, and a luncheon scheduled between the two leaders was reportedly cancelled. It is to his credit that the mercurial President Trump concealed his frustration and held a long press conference in which he explained that while they had a “very good” meeting, Chairman Kim’s vision was different than what the US was looking for. Chairman Kim wanted all the sanctions to be lifted immediately in return for dismantling only their most prominent nuclear facility at Yongbyon. President Trump said that “we wanted a lot to be given up”. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo elaborated that North Korean missiles, nuclear warheads and weapon systems would have been left out of any immediate agreement, and the timing as well as the sequencing issues of various steps towards denuclearisation also could not be agreed.
Mr Trump clarified that it had taken the US a long time and partnership with many countries to build the leverage of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and that leverage cannot be built again easily once it is given up.
Replying to a query, President Trump said that he expected there would be no future nuclear or missile tests by the North and revealed that on this issue, Chairman Kim had said: “We will see”. President Trump evaded the question on any additional sanctions against North Korea, saying that they were “very tough”. The policy of “maximum pressure” is therefore being kept in abeyance by the US for the present.
President Trump continues to assess Chairman Kim as a constructive interlocutor and is ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. When asked about the torture of young US citizen Otto Warmbier in 2017 in North Korean prisons, President Trump said that he would take Chairman Kim on his word when he said that he did not know about it.
As is his wont, President Trump blamed his predecessors, particularly President Barack Obama, for “doing nothing” and allowing North Korea to develop its nuclear and missile capability. He said that in the process of dealing with North Korea, China has been “a big help, more than what people know”. He further said that at Hanoi he and Chairman Kim “talked a lot about China”. He also acknowledged Russia’s help in implementing the sanctions.
When questioned on any possible resumption of military exercises with South Korea, President Trump deflected the issue complaining that the exercises cost hundreds of millions of dollars and South Korea should do more to reimburse the costs. He was a trifle disparaging when he remarked: “Exercises are fun. They play war games.” It appears that during the Kim-Trump talks, the focus was on denuclearisation and the lifting of sanctions, and the possibility of a formal end of the Korean War did not receive much attention.
Most Korea watchers were always pessimistic about any breakthrough at Hanoi. North Korea had made its stance abundantly clear in several statements that it expected “corresponding measures” from the United States in a step-by-step path towards denuclearisation, and that the US should first ease sanctions in return for the freeze on nuclear and missile tests which North Korea has already declared.
President Trump left Hanoi disappointed, but on a friendly note. The talks at the official level will continue to bridge the gaps in perception and outcomes. No understanding on a third summit was reached at Hanoi between the two leaders.
After a inconclusive summit at Hanoi, the US foreign policy establishment will be relieved that the President has not yielded too much on promises of future action by North Korea. Japan would also heave a sigh of relief that no deal had been struck ignoring its concerns on short-range North Korean missiles. South Korea has termed the outcome “regrettable”, and would have to navigate deftly keeping the US on board in its own bilateral journey towards reconciliation with North Korea. And the world at large, including India, would find solace in that there is no immediate likelihood of a return to the belligerence and rhetoric about an imminent war on the Korean peninsula. At least in the medium term, till President Trump’s patience runs out!
The writer is a retired diplomat who has served as India’s ambassador to South Korea...