The much-anticipated North Korea-US summit in Hanoi summit ended early on Thursday in dramatic and unexpected fashion, with no agreement having been reached, no declaration signed, and no apparent road-map in place for future engagement.
After dinner on Wednesday and a morning of talks on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump had been planning a working lunch, then, according to a schedule posted at the international media center, would sign a joint, post-summit declaration.
Neither the lunch nor any signing took place. Early indications are that both sides had been too ambitious.
“We thought – I thought and [US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] felt – it was not a good thing to be signing anything,” Trump said in a press conference. “We had some options at this time. We decided not to do any options. Sometimes you have to walk. This was just one of those times.” He added subsequently, “I would rather do it right than do it fast.”
What went wrong?
It appears that both sides may have sought too much from what is only the second-ever summit between two nations that have been enemies since 1950.
According to comments delivered by Trump and Pompeo during a post-summit press conference, the North Korean side had wanted all sanctions lifted, while the American side had demanded action on all North Korean nuclear facilities, rather than just the dismantlement of the country’s central Yongbyon nuclear facility.
“It was about the sanctions, they basically wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety. We could not do it,” Trump said. “They were willing to denuke a large area… [but] they were not willing to do an area we wanted.”
“I felt that that particular facility [Yongbyon], while very big, it was not enough… we had to have more than that,” he continued. “There are other things we have found… we bought many points up, I think they were surprised we knew.”
Kim first raised the issue of the dismantlement of Yongbyon last October, during his third summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang. But while Yongbyon is, indeed, the central nuclear facility in the country, and is where the nation’s plutonium is processed, North Korea also possesses uranium enrichment facilities in another, undisclosed location. It is also not known where the country stores its arsenal of existing atomic warheads.
Pompeo clarified the problems – which extended beyond atomic assets to missiles. “There are timing and sequencing issues… we did not get across the finish line,” he said. “The Yongbyon facility still leaves [out] missiles and warheads and weapons systems – lots of elements. We could not quite get there today.”
Asked if there were plans for another summit, Trump said: “Not yet. We will see what happens.” He added subsequently that another meeting, “…might be soon – might not be for a long time.”
As to whether a future agreement could include inspections and verification, Trump said: “If we do something with them we have a schedule set up. We know things about certain places and sites.”
Trump said he would soon be calling South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Moon, a keen proponent of North Korean engagement, is likely to be dismayed by the conclusion of the summit, while Abe may be relieved. There have been fears in Japan that a North Korea-US agreement might overlook Japan’s concerns about medium-range ballistic missiles.
The surprise ending to the summit was a dramatic turnaround given how positive the chemistry had looked between Kim and Trump at a dinner the previous evening, as well as during comments to media before, plus breaks in their negotiations this morning, when the two had joked with each other and reporters.
Still, even during his press conference, Trump continued to praise Kim, calling him “quite a guy, quite a character.” “We had probably the toughest language in the history of diplomacy,” Trump said, referring to a war of words in 2017 in which Trump characterized Kim as “Little Rocket Man”, while Kim responded that Trump was a “dotard”, “but we became very friendly.”
On the plus side, Trump said that Kim had given his word that his moratorium on missile and nuclear tests would continue. However, the US president was unclear on whether he would resume major military drills with South Korea. The exercises, which North Korea insists are preparation for an invasion, have been suspended since last year. He did, however, reiterate his opposition to the drills on the grounds of expense.
The US president also talked back any intensification of sanctions. “They have a lot of great people in North Korea that have to live also,” he said. “My whole attitude changed as I got to know Chairman Kim. They have a point of view also.”
Trump added that it was his belief that Kim himself was unaware of the treatment received by Otto Warmbier, the US student who went comatose while imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier subsequently died after being repatriated.
And the conclusion of the summit, Trump said, “Was very friendly, not a walk away like you get up and walk out. It was very friendly, we shook hands, there is a warmth we have.”
Characteristically, Trump also blamed previous administrations for not solving the North Korea problem – an indication of his recognition that the denuclearization process, assuming it restarts, is going to be long and hard. “This has been going on for many decades, this should have been resolved during many presidential terms,” he said.
Expectations ‘too high’
Analysts thought that the two sides bit off more than they could chew in Hanoi.
“Both [sides] from the beginning – their expectations were too high, they were too optimistic,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “But I expected this kind of problem was going to happen after this summit,” rather than during it, he said.
A question mark now hangs over the future of the process of North Korea-US diplomatic engagement, which started so promisingly at the summit in Singapore last June.
“I think it is a return to reality. Donald Trump has been pushing for a major breakthrough, [but] now we are seeing no agreement, we are getting back to square one – to the reality that North is not giving up its nuke weapons easily,” said Sebastian Falletti, a biographer of Kim Jong Un. “Donald Trump has been trying, during his press conference, to pretend that this is not a failure that the process will keep going… [but] are we going to have another summit?”
Many were surprised and disappointed.
“I am disappointed as everyone expected some breakthrough,” said Georgy Toloraya, a leading expert on the Korean peninsula at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Still, Toloraya warned that so far, only the US version of events has come out. “We only know Trump’s version, that North Korea demanded too much – the lifting of all sanctions, which was not possible. We don’t know North Korea’s version of events.”
Pundits will be watching closely what messages come out of North Korean state media in the hours and days ahead.
South Korea’s Moon, who had made no attempt to hide his enthusiasm to economically engage North Korea, which is impossible under the current sanctions regime, is likely to be appalled. Moon had been preparing a major speech on North Korean policy tomorrow, March 1: a highly symbolic date that marks the 100th anniversary of the Korean Independence movement against Japanese colonial rule.
A statement released to international reporters by the presidential Blue House talked up the “understanding of each other’s positions,” but said it was “regrettable” that the sides were “unable to reach complete agreement.” It added: “We hope that the United States and North Korea will continue to have active dialogue.”
That is uncertain; what happens next is unclear. Increased international action may be required.
“International engagement will be key,” said Akira Kawasaki of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. “We cannot just let the two countries seize the matter; we cannot rely on two unstable men.”
And patience will almost certainly be required.
“I don’t think the North Koreans are prepared for any concessions now, so there will be a sort of limbo. We will have to have some ‘strategic patience’ and not let the situation deteriorate,” Toloraya said. “But that is better than new tests and military actions.”