All’s not lost after second Kim-Trump summit

By Cheng Xiaohe Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/3 16:18:39

Defying all odds, the highly anticipated second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump wrapped up hastily without a joint declaration. The jaw-dropping ending to the meeting disappointed many analysts, who had focused on how big a deal the summit would produce rather than if it would produce one at all. Even though there were some warning signs related to the prospects of the meeting, analysts selectively ignored them and assumed that the two leaders, who spared a few days from their busy schedules to make the long trip to Hanoi, could not afford to return home empty-handed. Unfortunately, that was what happened. A number of reasons led to the talks falling apart. 

First and foremost, the gap between demands on both sides was too huge to bridge in one summit. The US and North Korea exchanged allegations that the other side demanded too much but prepared to give too little. 

From the US perspective, North Korea wanted all the sanctions, except those involving weapons sales and transfer, lifted in exchange for dismantling parts of the Yongbyon nuclear site. The US believes North Korea has other nuclear sites and not all Yongbyon nuclear facilities have been shut down and opened for inspection. In Trump's words, "they wanted sanctions lifted but they weren't willing to do an area we wanted. They were willing to give us areas but not the ones we wanted." 

From North Korea's perspective, Kim's mere participation in the second summit demonstrated the country's determination to denuclearize, and his willingness to shut down nuclear facilities in Yongbyon constituted a substantive step toward denuclearization. In addition to the concession, North Korea was also ready to pledge in writing a permanent halt to nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Thus, North Korea's demand for partial removal of sanctions that hurt its economy and people's lives is reasonable. To North Korea's dismay, the US had no intention to reciprocate, it even asked North Korea to take additional measures.

Obviously, as both sides dug in with their conflicting demands on critical nuclear issues, they had no appetite to discuss other problems, which could also trigger new conflicts.  

Second, inadequate preparations should be blamed for the bad finale to the summit. The gap between the US and North Korea's demands was bridgeable even though it was extremely hard to accomplish in one meeting. If both sides had had enough time and made an all-out effort to hold intensive negotiations with an aim to forge a minimum consensus, the second summit might have turned out to be different. The length of time over which talks were held and the number of times officials met ahead of the summit were inadequate for laying down a solid foundation for a successful Hanoi meeting. The second summit also presents a case study for students of international relations, revealing the limits of a top-down diplomatic approach adopted by the US and North Korea in addressing their problems. 

We are used to believing that summit diplomacy undertaken by top leaders can save substantial amount of time and energy in seeking a quick solution to some long-standing contentious issues in a more efficient and effective way. In fact, this top-down approach has proved to be quite successful in dramatically transforming the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, the second summit taught us a bitter lesson that success of any meeting between powerful leaders still needs careful preparations and painstaking negotiations at various levels. It would be too risky to let top leaders cut a deal over most contentious issues in a very short time.  

Certainly, other factors such as his long-time attorney Michael Cohen's recent explosive testimony on Capitol Hill might have played a role in ruining Trump's mood and making him jittery. Trump admitted that the testimony that came "in the middle of this very important summit is really a terrible thing."

Even though the second summit did not produce a joint declaration as expected and led to a disappointing outcome, it is hard to characterize it as a complete failure. We still got some positive results from it. Both sides exercised significant restraints and there was no acrimony and hysterical finger-pointing. They expressed their willingness to carry on negotiations in the future. Trump maintained he still has a strong and friendly relationship with Kim whereas the latter "expressed his thanks to Trump for making positive efforts for the successful meeting and talks while making a long journey and said goodbye, promising the next meeting." 

The second Kim-Trump summit helped reveal some, if not all, bottom lines in both North Korea's and the US' stances toward nuclear and related issues. The US has seemingly softened its position on sanctions but prefers to lift them in a phased manner under the condition that North Korea can do more than it has promised. North Korea agreed to shut down Yongbyon and to allow international inspections if the US agreed to end economic sanctions.

There is no doubt that the bottom lines can serve as a starting point in the next round, if talks jump-start in the future. Nonetheless, we have to bear in mind that the setback in the second summit inevitably has its political fallout, which will prove costly for Trump, who has already been grilled by mainstream US media over a variety of controversial issues. If a third party is willing to offer help and Trump and Kim desire to convert the recent setback into a new momentum for talks, there is reasonable hope that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is not a pipe dream.

The author is associate professor, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China; senior researcher, Pangoal Institute.


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