We have always known that Donald Trump can bring us big surprises, but the outcome of this week’s Hanoi summit once again confirmed that we are dealing with a very unusual President.
Until the very last moment, most observers expected that the summit would end with some sort of compromise.
Most likely, they reasoned, the North Koreans would agree to surrender some components of their nuclear program (like, say, some equipment and installations in the Yongbyon nuclear site), while the Americans would lift some of the sanctions – likely by allowing South Korea to restart some cooperation projects.
There were some pessimists – the present author included. As I wrote about a month ago, there was always the possibility that the summit would end in another flop and without any meaningful compromise.
However, such opinions were rare, and even those pessimists (including yours truly) were sure that both sides would go to great lengths to hide their failure to create an impression of success.
The predictions of this handful of pessimists to which I proudly belong were closer to the actual results, but still off the mark in some important regards.
Most observers expected that the summit would end with some sort of compromise
Donald Trump did admit that things did not work out well. No empty but pompous joint declaration was produced, even though President Trump in his press conference did emphasize that the failure to deliver results would not mean the end of negotiations.
He assured us that working level contacts would continue in spite of everything, and even said that the position of the two sides had gotten closer during the summit.
It seems that the first question is relatively easy to answer, since Donald Trump himself provided us with his version of events.
According to Donald Trump — in an account now disputed by DPRK diplomats — during talks the North Koreans expressed their willingness to close the Yongbyon nuclear site, but expected that the U.S. would reciprocate by lifting all sanctions.
The U.S. side saw this exchange as unequal and, one would say, with good reason. It is widely known that North Korea has many nuclear facilities outside the Yongbyon site which is, frankly, increasingly outdated.
On the other hand, the sanctions are by far the most powerful pressure tool at the U.S.’s disposal. Had the U.S. President agreed to the deal, the Americans would have had no way to push North Korea to close other nuclear and missile sites.
But from the very beginning it was clear that such a deal would be unacceptable to the Americans, so one wonders why it was put on the table by the North Koreans.
It is possible, but not very likely, that the North Koreans, now with China more or less behind them, have lost their appetite for negotiations.
However, this is not a very likely explanation – after all, Pyongyang has little reason to provoke confrontation, and a lot of reasons to handle Donald Trump with care.
It appears far more likely that both sides simply had little time – and, perhaps, not enough will – to forge a mutually acceptable compromise this time.
Most summits are, essentially, shows, where the leaders sign documents which have been prepared well in advance by their staff.
However, Trump-Kim talks are different: for manifold reasons, both leaders prefer to negotiate themselves, pushing their diplomats aside and even ignoring what has been discussed by the mid-level officials.
Both sides simply had little time – and, perhaps, not enough will – to forge a mutually acceptable compromise this time
In such a situation, it is conceivable that both sides were not willing to bargain for an acceptable compromise within the few hours they had at their disposal in Hanoi.
Another possible explanation is that the North Koreans, until the last moment, hoped that they would be able to influence President Trump and lure him into making larger concessions.
This is one of the reasons why the North Korean side has always emphasized one-to-one interaction between two ‘supreme leaders’.
Many knowledgeable people in the U.S. political elite also fear that the President would be susceptible to manipulation, pressure and flattery.
However, Donald Trump proved himself to be tougher than his detractors believed, and refused to accept what he, perhaps correctly, saw as an unbalanced and unfair deal.
It did not help that in Hanoi Donald Trump learned about a massive attack mounted against him back home.
The testimony of Michael Cohen will spell much trouble for him, so it is possible that President Trump had little time for diplomatic activities and was more concentrated on ways to deal with the looming crisis in Washington DC.
WHAT TO EXPECT
When Donald Trump was talking at his rather dramatic press conference, it was remarkable that he described Kim Jong Un in the most polite terms, and emphasized the mutual sympathy which allegedly exists between two leaders.
Among other things, he said: “I think frankly we’ll be good friends with Chairman Kim and North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.”
He emphasized that the negotiations were conducted and ended in a friendly atmosphere: “This wasn’t a walk away like you get up and walk out. No, this was very friendly. We shook hands.”
Donald Trump has not switched back to his bellicose style of 2017 — for the time being
Sure, the President said that he was not certain whether a third summit would take place – but openly committing oneself to such a summit under the current circumstances would be unnecessary and risky.
Nonetheless, President Trump emphasized that “we’ll be talking” and added “I hope our teams will get together in the days and weeks ahead and work (something) out.”
Donald Trump also said that Kim Jong Un promised him to refrain from nuclear and missile tests. Most likely this is true: the North Koreans have little to gain from provoking their neighbors with such tests now. Still, it is noteworthy that this promise was explicitly and prominently mentioned by President Trump.
Donald Trump has not switched back to his bellicose style of 2017 — for the time being, at least. While he did not try to package a diplomatic failure as a great breakthrough – as skeptics expected before the summit — he did emphasize that the problems are solvable and perhaps would be solved in due time.
It is also remarkable that at the morning of February 28, when some compromise still looked possible, Donald Trump said that we should not be “in a rush”, implying that the negotiations and disarmament process will probably take years.
It will take weeks or rather months to see whether the negotiations continue at all, and if so, how fast the advance is likely to be.
Slowdowns are possible and likely.
However, the basic positions and goals will hardly change: North Koreans will hope to win time, but will also hope for some compromise which will allow them to retain a significant part of the nuclear and missile stockpile while releasing them from the sanctions.
The U.S. will aim for the denuclearization of North Korea (as impossible as ever, needless to say), but will probably accept some compromises, too.
So, who are winners and losers? One has to wait until the dust will settle down, of course, but preliminary thoughts are possible.
Donald Trump is both a loser and winner. It will be more difficult for him to present himself as a miraculous deal maker, a master of international diplomacy.
On the other hand, he is likely to portray himself as a tough negotiator, always ready to protect U.S. interests. Had he signed a bad deal, as many of his opponents were afraid he would, he would invite grave critical attacks.
Kim Jong Un won some time. It seems unlikely that hard-liners in the U.S. are going to get much support from Trump now, and this is a good news for Kim.
On the other hand, no sanctions relief is forthcoming, and South Korean aid/investment remains an elusive dream.
On top of that, Kim Jong Un might be in minor trouble: his propagandists will have to somehow explain to the North Korean public what happened in Hanoi, since his Vietnamese trip was presented by the Pyongyang media as a way towards some great diplomatic triumph.
However, these people are both experienced and shameless, so they will produce plausible explanations, no doubt.
It is President Moon Jae-in of South Korea who suffered the worst blow, since he obviously gambled much on the possibility of sanctions relief (it looked very possible indeed until the afternoon of February 28).
A planned visit to Seoul by Kim Jong Un, so much talked about in recent six months, is likely to be postponed.
Kim Jong Un might be in minor trouble: his propagandists will have to somehow explain to the North Korean public what happened in Hanoi
Nearly all intra-Korean economic cooperation projects will be put on hold, since almost nothing can be done in this field until sanctions are lifted. As a result, President Moon’s approval ratings will slide.
At any rate, the failure to reach a compromise is bad news, but one should not be in despair.
No deal is better than a bad deal, and now it seems that the failure of the Hanoi summit will not necessarily push us back to 2017-style confrontation.
It is possible and indeed likely that in Hanoi we have seen a major, but not decisive, setback in the negotiations process. Talks will probably continue, albeit with some delays and at a slower speed.
This is good news, even though these negotiations will never produce what many wish for – the denuclearization of North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
We have always known that Donald Trump can bring us big surprises, but the outcome of this week's Hanoi summit once again confirmed that we are dealing with a very unusual President.Until the very last moment, most observers expected that the summit would end with some sort of compromise.Most likely, they reasoned, the North Koreans would agree to surrender some components of their nuclear
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.