Following the abrupt ending of the highly anticipated second bilateral summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, APARC and CISAC scholars evaluate the result of the summit, its implications for regional relations in Northeast Asia, and the opportunities moving forward towards the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
This Q&A with Noa Ronkin features Andray Abrahamian, the 2018-19 Koret Fellow in Korean Studies at APARC, whose work with the nonprofit Choson Exchange has taken him to the DPRK nearly 30 times; Siegfried S. Hecker, top nuclear security expert, former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Research Professor of Management Science and Engineering, Emeritus, and Senior Fellow at CISAC/FSI, Emeritus; and Gi-Wook Shin, Professor of Sociology, William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea, Director of APARC, and founding Director of the Korea Program.
Q: What is your assessment of the summit outcome? Considering Trump's decision to end the summit early, do you support that “no deal is better than a bad deal?” Do you think the summit would have been better off with even a small deal just significant enough to keep the momentum going?
Abrahamian: It's a disappointment, but we don't know yet if it is a catastrophe. I think that, ideally, once it was clear that both sides were escalating towards a grand bargain no one was ready for, the U.S. and DPRK teams could have taken a break and reconvened to attempt something less ambitious. For both sides it is better domestically to go back and be able to look tough rather than concede too much, but I do wonder why there was no intermediary position available between no deal and something too big.
: I am disappointed, but still optimistic. Disappointed because the opportunity to take concrete steps toward denuclearization and normalization was missed. Optimistic, because Trump and Kim did not return to the ‘fire and fury’ days of 2017. They left Hanoi on good terms. I don’t believe it was a question of bad deal or no deal. Rather, it appears the two sides were actually quite close to taking important steps, but couldn’t quite get there this time. It is not clear whether time just ran out or if President Trump’s challenge to Kim Jong-un to “go bigger
” moved the goal posts at the last minute.
Shin: Trump made the right move. No deal is better than a small or pointless deal that could hamper future negotiations. His decision sent a warning signal to North Korea that he wouldn’t let the country continue to set the tone and pace for the negotiations. Also, he gained more domestic political slack than the alternative would have gained him. The misfortune in Hanoi may impart a new, different kind of momentum to what is destined to be a fluctuating, arduous diplomatic process.
Q: So what's next? What do you expect from the US and DPRK given this new dynamic? What do you think needs to be done at the working level and at the leadership level? And what do you think will be the biggest hurdle in future negotiations?
Abrahamian: Both sides carefully left future talks open through their statements after the summit. If one is searching for a positive outcome, it's that the leaders perhaps now realize that much, much more will have to be agreed upon before they meet again. This should help empower working-level talks. But time is short: a U.S. election looms next year and Donald Trump faces political challenges at home. This was a missed opportunity to consolidate a relationship-building process.
Hecker: The American and North Korean statements following the summit paint different pictures of the final bargaining positions, but both were positive and committed to return to the bargaining table. These differences should be surmountable at the bargaining table, but it will take time and a more concerted effort. So long as North Korea ends nuclear and missile testing, we have time to come to a proper compromise, but it must clearly involve some sanctions relief for the North Korean economy. One of the biggest hurdles on the American side is to overcome internal political divisions.
Shin: A return to hostility is unlikely. Both sides have refrained from escalating tension and are still committed to a diplomatic solution. The negotiations will resume. The Hanoi summit served as an opportunity for a much-needed reality check, for both sides, of the lingering divergences. The biggest hurdle continues to be how to define the terms and scope of denuclearization and the U.S. corresponding measures (simultaneous and parallel actions). Now that the discrepancies have become more apparent and starker, the working-level discussions need to agree on basic yet fundamental concepts and principles, while Trump and Kim should continue the process of trust-building; confidence and trust are a must in a top-down setting.
Q: Are there some roles that other key players can play, such as South Korea and China? Are there any impacts of this outcome on regional relations in Northeast Asia, such as inter-Korean and China-DPRK relations?
Abrahamian: Perhaps South Korea can play a bridging role again, the way it did before the Singapore summit, when Trump "pre-emptively pulled out." In that case, President Moon's intervention helped get things back on track. It is unclear if he has the political capital with either side to make that happen again, but I suspect he will try. The collapse impacts a Kim Jong-un visit to Seoul, as now it would seem to be pressure on the US, rather than operating in space the US created. China is relatively marginalized, but happy to see no secondary sanctions threats or additional testing of missiles. Japan is perhaps the most pleased of all, given how isolated it has become on North Korea issues.
Hecker: The Moon Jae-in administration was hoping for a more positive outcome to allow it to promote economic cooperation with the North, which I consider to be one of the most important elements of achieving a peaceful Korean Peninsula. The Hanoi outcome may require an intensified North-South dialogue to assist the North-U.S. deliberations. I am not sure how all of this will affect China-DPRK relations. I would have preferred an outcome that allows DPRK to move closer to South Korea through some sanctions relief, than to have it depend more on China through continued maximum pressure.
Shin: The outcome is clearly a major setback for South Korea, as it was anticipating progress on core issues that could jumpstart inter-Korean projects. It also became unclear whether Kim would make the planned visit to Seoul anytime soon. At the same time, this might be a perfect time for South Korea to play a meaningful role. So far, the country has been seen as advocating North Korea’s position with regards to an end-of-war declaration and to a lifting or easing of sanctions. This time around, President Moon needs to convince Chairman Kim that North Korea’s bold move toward denuclearization cannot be delayed if he wishes not to lose this rare opportunity with a U.S. president who is eager to make a “big” deal.
For more U.S.-DPRK diplomacy analysis and commentarty by APARC scholars, see our recent media coverage