Last week’s Hanoi summit, contrary to the expectations of the majority of observers, ended without a deal. Now seems the right moment to ask: what happens now, and what should we expect in the next few months?
To start with, the responses from both sides immediately after the summit give us reasons for hope. Both sides expressed their willingness to negotiate, even though the statements by Ri Yong Ho and Choe Son Hui were, predictably, tougher than remarks by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, and hinted at a possible breakdown of talks.
This positive impression is reinforced by the recent official press release about a March 1 phone call between Pompeo and Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono: the release mentions explicitly that “Pompeo described next steps on DPRK engagement.”
So, on balance, the “optics” are quite good for the aftermath of unsuccessful talks between two hostile countries. This comes as little surprise, since both sides have valid reasons to remain engaged (for the time being, at least).
The North Korean side needs to keep negotiations going, as this allows them to buy time and reduce the likelihood that Washington’s policies towards Korea will again be determined by hawks: those eager champions of confrontation, bellicose rhetoric and, perhaps, military action.
It is also possible that, in the long run, the DPRK leadership would not mind reaching a compromise with the U.S. This will not lead, of course, to the ever-elusive “complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear disarmament” of North Korea.
The North Korean side needs to keep negotiations going
Instead, it will involve the freeze or even a reduction in the North Korean nuclear and missile programs in exchange for significant political and economic concessions from the United States, South Korea, and other interested parties.
For Donald Trump, the North Korean issue remains important. Essentially, it is a campaign issue. Since early last year, Trump’s people have been insisting that he has managed to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, which seemed unresolvable in the days of his predecessors.
It seems that Donald Trump has elevated the North Korean problem to a major part of his own image-building program, and, as a result, real or seeming success in this area is highly desirable and will strengthen the President’s claims to be a peace maker and master diplomat.
Other countries – South Korea, above all, but also China and Russia – would also like negotiations to continue, even though their ability to exercise influence is limited at best. None of them want the situation to slide back to what it used to look like in 2017, in the days of “fire and fury” when a war on the peninsula looked quite possible.
Therefore, at the time of writing in early March 2019, the Hanoi dust is yet to settle, but the prognosis looks good.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Despite this, one should not be excessively optimistic: the surprise turn of events in Vietnam might bring some new challenges and new threats.
The Hanoi debacle does not mean that a disaster is just beyond the corner, but it clearly made the world (and North East Asia in particular) a slightly more dangerous place.
The collapse of talks might be interpreted by U.S. hard-liners as a confirmation of their long-held belief that talks with North Koreans are a waste of time.
The U.S. foreign policy and security establishment, with few exceptions in the State Department, is now dominated by such hard-liners. In their mind, the only way to deal with North Korea is the revival of 2017’s hard-line policy, combined with secondary sanctions against those uncooperative Chinese companies which dare to deal with North Korea.
The Hanoi dust is yet to settle, but the prognosis looks good
This opinion is mistaken. Irrespective of whether Donald Trump was bluffing or not when he threatened Kim Jong Un with a military strike, in 2017 the unprecedented American bellicosity was only successful when combined with an unprecedented Chinese willingness to wholeheartedly support new, hard-line sanctions.
The North Koreans were terrified by this combination of an unpredictable U.S. President with Chinese support for maximum pressure.
But this Chinese eagerness is now gone, a victim of the ongoing trade war with the U.S., and this is a bad news for American hard-liners. Since late spring last year, China has routinely turned a blind eye to smuggling and small-scale trade, even though it is not (yet) willing to actively violate the sanctions themselves.
This undermines the U.S. hard-liners’ policy, and will also embolden Pyongyang. China does not openly violate sanctions, but it tacitly accepts smuggling, and makes shipments of the alleged ‘humanitarian aid’ from China.
It is not enough to fully compensate for the impact of sanctions, but such limited infusions of cash will ensure that the North Korean economy stays afloat.
NORTH KOREA’S PATIENCE
On the other hand, it is not impossible that it will be the North Korean side who will turn to the bellicosity again. At a post-summit press conference in Hanoi, Choe Son Hui said that in the new situation Chairman Kim “may have lost some of his excitement about making a deal with the Americans in the future”.
Choe’s remark was, most likely, an exercise in brinksmanship, no doubt inspired by the wonderful example of brinksmanship just handed to them by Donald Trump.
It is possible that Kim Jong Un will indeed turn to a hard line – either to bring the Americans to the negotiating table under better conditions, or to show the Americans that North Koreans are tough and not easy to blackmail.
If the U.S. side refuses to restart working-level talks, it is possible that nuclear tests and missile launches will be resumed.
It is possible that Kim Jong Un will indeed turn to a hard line
This author believes that the fear of Donald Trump is still big enough to prevent such a turn of events, but the U.S. President is increasingly ham-strung by the domestic crisis, and this matters. Seeing his trouble at home, North Koreans will feel a greater temptation to challenge him.
Even if the North Koreans are not going to return to tests and launches right now, if they come to see Donald Trump as a lame duck, they will be less interested in achieving the realistically available compromises until the end of his tenure.
So, the “no deal” in Hanoi will probably have limited impact on the state of affairs, but in the longer run it is still is capable of pushing things downhill.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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