About the Author
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Most people would agree that domestic politics affect diplomatic negotiations, and last month’s Hanoi summit was interesting because it provided some visible clues as to the relationship between what goes on at home and foreign policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said that the congressional hearing of Michael Cohen — which took place during the summit — might have contributed his decision to walk away.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, too, seems to have been driven by domestic politics — albeit from the different direction. He sent two kinds of messages as the summit ended, a bitter one for the world, and a rosy one for his people.
ABRUPT COLLAPSE, OR AGREED DELAY?
Most of the U.S. media described the result of the summit as an “abrupt collapse” and there were some grounds for this headline. However, the reactions from both leaders were very different from the “collapse” narrative.
President Trump said that the summit was productive and ended in friendly manner, even though no deal was reached with the North, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he hopes that both sides can resume negotiations within a few weeks.
Kim Jong Un had a similar message: North Korean media stressed the summit was successful, though high-level DPRK diplomats publicly contested the U.S.’s claims that the North had demanded the total lifting of economic sanctions.
The result of the summit was more like an agreed delay, rather than a head-on collision. So, even though the summit did not produce any agreement, it is not necessarily accurate to conclude that the summit collapsed or failed.
In the run-up to Hanoi, there were several signals which led many observers to expect an agreement which would see the North take steps towards denuclearization in return for the U.S. responding with a partial lifting of sanctions.
A speech by U.S. special representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun in January, for example, suggested the U.S. was more open to taking a simultaneous and parallel approach on the issue of the denuclearization. These remarks were widely interpreted as the U.S. taking a new approach.
Later, however, it was revealed that President Trump had demanded the destruction of all facilities and would not accept the total lifting of sanctions. So, there was a discrepancy between what Biegun said and the real demands of the U.S.
Second, hard-liners in the U.S. administration also hinted at some loosening attitudes on major issues, with Vice President Mike Pence saying in an interview last November last year that North Korea handing over a full list of its nuclear sites would not be a pre-condition for another summit between Kim and Trump.
It is not necessarily accurate to conclude that the summit collapsed or failed
He also changed his position on lifting sanctions, from no lifting before complete denuclearization to a possible discussion on relaxation before the completion of the denuclearization process.
Third, President Trump many times predicted big results on denuclearization — and even Chairman Kim said that he would do his best to produce a good outcome.
However, both returned home empty-handed, even though there were considerable chance for a ‘Hanoi Agreement.’
One of the strongest explanations for this is that neither side could compromise on denuclearization, but another explanation is related to domestic politics, especially on the Trump side.
TRUMP, DISTRACTED AND RESTRAINED
The congressional hearing of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, was originally scheduled on February 7. However, it was postponed, and the Congress rescheduled it to take place between February 26 and 28.
So, on the day of the Hanoi summit, on February 27 and 28, the biggest topic in U.S. media was the Cohen hearing, not the summit. President Trump complained about the hearing’s schedule during his news conference just after his meeting with Kim Jong Un. Several days later he attacked the hearing schedule, saying the event had contributed to his decision to not sign anything in Vietnam.
Distracted by the hearing, President Trump was also restrained by pessimism in Washington. In the run up to the event, traditional elites in DC, including Democrats and the mainstream media, poured worry, warnings, and criticisms on a possible “bad deal” — big concessions with small gains — from the summit.
President Trump has in the past disregarded this kind of criticism from the establishment, and he could have disregarded these worries again. But it seems this time he was intimidated and stepped back.
Domestic politics, clearly, contributed to the result of the summit and the weight of this influence can be counted as half of the reason for this “agreed delay.”
The result of the summit was more like an agreed delay, rather than a head-on collision
KIM, CONFINED AND CONSTRAINED
So, President Trump decided to leave Hanoi without a deal, but why did Kim agree with Trump on the “talk only” summit, when he badly wants to remove economic sanctions and get funds to develop his country?
The two conflicting reactions from the North provide clear clues as to the reason why he accepted “no deal.” It was about an hour before midnight on February 28, the day the summit wrapped up, when the North Korean side began to inform reporters in Hanoi that they would hold a press conference at midnight in the Melia Hotel.
That briefing saw foreign minister Ri Yong Ho read a prepared paper in which he refuted the arguments that Trump had made ten hours previously, saying that the North had not demanded the total lifting of sanctions but only their partial lifting.
He also said the North Koreans had offered to totally destroy the Yongbyon nuclear complex, but the U.S. turned the offer down. After the conference, Vice Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters that Chairman Kim’s openness to talks was now weakened.
The next day, North Korean media did not say much about the results of the summit, though reported that it was successful, with focus purely on maximum praise for Chairman Kim for his diplomatic efforts to do everything for the people of North Korea.
These two different reactions demonstrate the extremely uncomfortable position Pyongyang is in — and the impact domestic politics is having.
Following the summit, many might have expected that the North would announce the break-down of dialogue and unleash a barrage of criticism against the U.S.
However, too much criticism of the U.S. and Trump could harm the domestic image of Kim Jong Un, which runs contrary to the common propaganda claim in the DPRK that the Supreme Leader cannot make any mistakes.
This is why they separated the messages into two parts: controlled criticism against the U.S. from the foreign ministry and the highest level of eulogy to the leader for the North Korean people.
Being confined by the forever-victorious image of the Supreme Leader, Chairman Kim was constrained by the need to continuously cooperate with Trump — perhaps the only President who would be willing to meet the leader of rogue nation like North Korea.
Kim’s goal is to have a chance to develop his country by trading some denuclearization for sanctions relief. Even though Trump disappointed him, cooperation with the U.S. President is the best option for him.
So, he did not speak ill of Trump, instead agreeing that any joint statement should be postponed for a better time and environment.
The collapse of the Hanoi summit can be only partially explained by the failure of diplomacy. Domestic politics, too, played a major role.
Should another summit between the North and the U.S. go ahead, keeping a close eye on politics at home, for both sides, should be an indispensable barometer for success.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House