It’s been more than a month since the collapse of the summit in Vietnam, and the ramifications stemming from the failure of that meeting are still unfolding.
There is no doubt that Hanoi was a diplomatic failure that revealed the wide gulf that exists between the United States and North Korea when it comes to the latter’s “complete denuclearization.”
Yet, there seems to be a concerted effort by President Donald Trump and his top officials to depict the outcome of Hanoi summit as a success — and they appear to have largely succeeded in convincing the media and punditry on both sides of the Pacific.
The same officials are pushing a particular narrative of the summit’s collapse, in which Trump heroically resisted striking a bad deal with North Koreans.
What’s more, Trump is being described as having assumed the hardline position espoused by his national security advisor, John Bolton, insisting that North Korea denuclearize completely before being given any reward.
Such a narrative is problematic on several levels. First, it contradicts what transpired at the working-level meetings prior to the summit, in which the American side was said to have offered appropriate “corresponding measures” to match different levels of North Korean denuclearization concessions.
There no doubt that Hanoi was a diplomatic failure
Back then, North Korea could be forgiven for believing the U.S. was not aspiring to impose unilateral denuclearization on North Korea from the get-go, but rather aimed to produce results of any kind regardless of the actual level of denuclearization that could be agreed.
Second, the current narrative gives the misleading impression that Trump and his own administration are on the same page regarding North Korea.
That should be the case by default, but it clearly isn’t for Trump and his advisors. In the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, many conservatives on both sides of the Pacific rejoiced as National Security Advisor John Bolton dusted off the “Libyan Model” of denuclearization and shoved it in Kim Jong Un’s face.
But that was until Trump contradicted his own administration officials by publicly withdrawing a new round of sanctions against North Korea before they were announced two weeks ago.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
Where do the two sides stand on North Korea? The divide between Trump and his own national security team seem as wide as Seoul’s position is from Washington’s.
But the most damaging aspect of such a narrative is the return of the so-called “Libyan model” to the negotiation table, which further undermines North Korea’s incentive to remain engaged in dialogue.
Contrary to impressions given by the administration officials, North Korea has been reluctant to engage in denuclearization talks with the American officials since the Singapore summit.
The reason? North Korea continues to believe that the process, as it is now, is headed towards its unilateral denuclearization, and already expressed displeasure at such a prospect more than once.
In the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, many conservatives on both sides of the Pacific rejoiced
After Secretary Pompeo visited Pyongyang in July last year, North Korea characterized Pompeo’s demand of denuclearization before lifting of sanctions as “gangster-like”. This was followed by the regime’s refusal to sit down with the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun for eight months.
Yet North Korea remained in the dialogue process because the American side, seemingly, made a key concession to them at the Singapore summit: namely abandoning its long-standing demand that Pyongyang completely denuclearize before any sanction measures were lifted.
Instead, it would engage in a step-by-step, gradual denuclearization process just as North Korea had been asking. Biegun even made an explicit commitment to the incremental approach in an event hosted at Stanford University in January.
For all the above reasons, it is unfortunate that the President and his advisors appear to believe their own spin about the failure of Hanoi summit to claim that the breakdown in talks is actually harbinger of success down the road.
The North Koreans, of course, disagree. Vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui, for one, has strongly insinuated that North Korea could withdraw from nuclear negotiations altogether if the U.S. continued to insist on its unilateral denuclearization.
This dissonance between Washington and Pyongyang, and the possibility that North Korea could disengage from the negotiation process, are borne from the fact that Trump and his advisors are not fully committed to which path of denuclearization they are going to take.
This uncertainty certainly worries the players that have a better understanding of North Korea’s strategy: South Korea and China, although the latter is keeping a prudent distance from North Korea as it is amidst sensitive trade negotiations with the United States.
The Hanoi summit represented the breaking point in the negotiations between North Korea and the United States
For South Korea, the risk is more immediate: President Moon’s domestic standing depends on the continuation of the inter-Korean dialogue.
The fact Moon has now reshuffled his cabinet and nominated an ardent advocate of inter-Korean economic engagement, Kim Yeon-chul, as his next Minister of Unification, indicates the strong urgency on the part of the South Korean government, as expanding economic relations with North Korea at the moment could clash with the current Trump administration’s stance on keeping the sanctions strong and effective.
NO WAY FORWARD?
Far from being just a hiccup on the road to peace and denuclearization, the Hanoi summit represents a breaking point in the negotiations between North Korea and the United States.
By changing its approach towards North Korea almost overnight, not only the United States undermined its own credibility, but also steered Pyongyang towards a more rigid negotiating position.
Worse, it has forced South Korea to risk an even bigger rift with its main ally in order to keep North Korea engaged and salvage inter-Korean relations.
As things stand at present, the diplomatic process that started in January last year is headed for failure. Yet the American response so far has lacked the sense of urgency or even motivation to see the negotiation through.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently expressed his hope that there will be a third Trump-Kim summit soon, while reaffirming the need for North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization.
North Koreans are likely to find Pompeo’s remarks insensitive, and a reminder that the only North Korean language that Americans understand is one of provocations. Or “a new way,” as Kim put it in his New Year address.
So how can Trump reverse the deterioration in negotiations and its inevitable breakdown?
Unless the Trump administration is willing and ready to impose surrender on North Korea, the answer is straightforward: the United States should revive the negotiation process by reverting back to the pre-Hanoi phase of step-by-step approach.
The diplomatic process that started in January last year is headed for failure
Yes, such an approach runs the risk of legitimizing North Korea’s aspiration to become a nuclear state. But the United States and South Korea must recognize the reality that the denuclearization process is going to be long and gradual.
The current process looks attractive because it does not require compromising with an evil regime, but its flawed characteristics will inevitably lead to escalation and conflict in the peninsula without resolving the core challenge of a nuclear North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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