Some described Kim Jong Un as the “big winner” at his summit with Donald Trump in Hanoi that ended abruptly without any deal or agreement on Thursday. In contrast, they claimed that the US president emerged from that two-day meeting in Vietnam’s capital as the big loser, and even the “biggest loser.”
For example, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, claimed that regardless of the summit outcome, “in getting to sit face-to-face with the most powerful person in the world, the president of the United States,” Kim Jong Un was already “the big winner.”
Similarly, an article published by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) said Trump “lost big” at the summit because, “After traveling halfway around the world for a face-to-face meeting with one of the world’s most notorious despots – with hopes of persuading the dictator to give up his nuclear-weapons cache – the president who considers himself the world’s ultimate deal-maker pushed away from the negotiating table with nothing more in hand than he had arrived with.”
In depicting Trump as “the biggest loser,” a British Broadcasting Corporation report said Trump left Hanoi “with not just no deal but to real problems” at home. By contrast, though he failed to get the sanctions on his country eased, “which might squeeze some at home,” the North Korean leader “got his pictures taken with the president of the United States. He’s been on the front page, once again, of his newspapers, looking like a global statesman. And to the world he has managed to appear, once again, as if he’s a kind of normal, peace-loving nuclear power.” With such a view, the report concluded: “So when it comes to whose image is beaten here, it’s President Trump’s, not Kim Jong Un’s.”
At first glance, such critical views of Trump and his Hanoi summit with the 35-year-old autocrat seem understandable.
True, by giving Kim such a high-profile summit and publicly hailing him on the global stage, Trump not only legitimized but also empowered North Korea’s regressive, reclusive and ruthless dictator. What’s more, though he sacrificed so much in prestige, time and energy, the US president left the summit empty-handed. Such an outcome is, without doubt, a huge setback for him.
A deeper look reveals that not all is bad for Trump, the US and its allies. In many respects, for them, the outcome of the Vietnam summit might be even better than that of the Singapore summit in June 2018
But a deeper look reveals that not all is bad for Trump, the US and its allies. In many respects, for them, the outcome of the Vietnam summit might be even better than that of the Singapore summit in June 2018.
There were real concerns among some American politicians, foreign-policy analysts and even his own advisers that, with Trump eager or desperate to claim a victory of any sort for his own political purposes, he might impulsively rush to a slapdash deal – say, pledging to withdraw US troops from South Korea for a vague promise of denuclearization from Pyongyang – that would certainly disadvantage his country and its regional allies in the long run.
At the Singapore summit, he made a huge concession to North Korea by deciding to halt the United States’ joint military exercises with South Korea, and such a unilateral decision stunned America’s regional allies and even his own military. This time around, he was much more cautious.
In his press conference after the summit was cut short abruptly, Trump revealed that he “had some options” to strike a deal with North Korea and “could have 100% signed something today.” But he “decided not to do any of the options” or sign anything because he “would much rather do it right than do it fast.”
He said the reason he decided to walk away was that North Korea wanted all sanctions lifted in return for only partial denuclearization, which he deemed insufficient.
The mere fact that US lawmakers, including top Democrats, and foreign-policy experts cheered the Republican president for walking away from talks with North Korea’s young dictator indicates that Trump did the right thing at the Hanoi summit.
Indeed, as the stakes of the nuclear talks with North Korea are so high not only for the US but also its regional allies, no deal is certainly better than a bad deal.
That said, though it didn’t produce any deal or agreement, the Hanoi summit wasn’t a total failure. A positive outcome is that it helped – intentionally or not – the two sides to define and declare their positions, both privately and publicly. For the US, going forward in terms of its negotiations with North Korea, things are now much simpler and better.
In explaining why the talks abruptly collapsed, Trump said, “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.” He also disclosed in his press briefing that though he “wants to denuke,” the North Korean leader “just wants to do areas that are less important than what we want.”
In a rare press conference late on Thursday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho apparently refuted Trump’s claim, saying his government made a realistic proposal for a partial removal of sanctions in return for its willingness to dismantle their main nuclear site, at Yongbyon.
While it remains unclear whether Pyongyang asked for an “entire” or “partial” removal of the UN sanctions, it’s clear that those sanctions, notably the ones imposed in 2017, which target exports and imports vital to its economy, badly hurt North Korea. Consequently, they are the ones that Pyongyang desperately wanted to be lifted.
Thus the Hanoi summit revealed two important and related factors, which also indicate the US now has the upper hand.
First, the fundamental issues in the US-North Korea disputes are now around the US-led international sanctions and Pyongyang’s denuclearization. From the US perspective, any concessions it can make in return for North Korea’s denuclearization efforts are mainly confined within sanctions relief. In other words, it doesn’t have to make any far-reaching concessions in other key areas, such as the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula, in return for Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
Second, the damaging sanctions on North Korea that Trump successfully forced other countries, including China, Pyongyang’s only ally and main partner, to join are the primary leverage Washington uses to compel it to denuke. Certainly, Trump has many flaws and flops in his domestic and foreign policies, but it’s undeniable that he has successfully created such vital leverage almost out of nothing.
At the personal and political level, Trump’s “no deal” summit in Hanoi wasn’t totally bad for him. As some pointedly observed, by deciding to walk away from the summit, Trump has managed to shift attention from the explosive testimony of Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to the summit’s collapse.
As for Kim Jong Un, the two high-profile summits with Trump have certainly given him legitimacy and prestige, both at home and abroad. But they have also revealed more about his dictatorial regime and, particularly, the dreadful state of his country
If Democrats intentionally used that hearing, which took place during the Hanoi summit, to discredit Trump, they apparently failed. But, regardless of their intentions, as Trump rightly said in his Hanoi presser, having that hearing “in the middle of this very important summit is really a terrible thing. They could’ve made it two days later or next week.”
As for Kim Jong Un, the two high-profile summits with Trump have certainly given him legitimacy and prestige, both at home and abroad. But they have also revealed more about his dictatorial regime and, particularly, the dreadful state of his country.
As North Korea didn’t have a plane that could fly him directly to Singapore for the first meeting with Trump in Singapore last June, he took an Air China plane. Probably because he was too embarrassed to borrow another plane from his giant neighbor, the young dictator took an almost 70-hour train ride to Hanoi for the second summit.
All this reveals – though he might appear as “a global statesman” at home or “a normal, peace-loving nuclear power” to the world – how poor his country is.
On the eve of the Hanoi summit, Dutch customs seized 90,000 bottles of vodka believed to be destined for North Korea, which has been slapped with heavy international sanctions that include a ban on the import of certain luxury goods.
Kim arrived in Hanoi with the hope that he could make a deal to ease such sanctions. But he left Hanoi on Saturday empty-handed and, probably, with a heavy heart, making his return to his isolated country even longer.
As the international sanctions remain intact, his regime and, especially, the North Korean people, who have already endured great hardship due to the Kim dynasty’s oppression, aggression and, consequently, international isolation, will continue to suffer.
On balance, it can be argued, it is Kim, rather than Trump, who was “the big loser” at the failed summit. But the biggest losers are, without doubt, the ordinary North Korean people.