Lessons from Hanoi
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Around 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, I bumped into John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, in front of the elevator on the fourth floor of the JW Marriott Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. My room was coincidentally on the same floor. Since he was without luggage and in casual wear, he must have been returning to his room after breakfast. Out of journalistic habit, I called out “Ambassador Bolton!” — since he is the former U.S. envoy to the United Nations — and asked, “What do you expect from this meeting [the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un slated for the following two days]?” He turned around casually and was about to speak when suddenly two bodyguards got between us.
Bolton, who had canceled a visit to Seoul scheduled for Feb. 24 to 25 citing the crisis in Venezuela, was in Hanoi to prepare for the second U.S.-North summit. He joined the summit between Washington and Pyongyang and handed over the U.S. terms on denuclearization of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and other secret facilities kept hidden by North Korea. The contents of the envelope in Bolton’s hands were the wild card in the denuclearization negotiations in Hanoi.
There are several questions and misunderstandings about the Hanoi summit. First, did Washington really skip the required working-level negotiations? North Korea thought it could close a deal in Hanoi by proposing to dismantle the nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon compound. But U.S. officials wanted to examine not only the entire 390 buildings scattered around Yongbyon but also nuclear facilities hidden around the country. What to dismantle was the most important issue during the second summit, which took place eight months after the first summit in Singapore last year. Yet the issue was passed over to a summit meeting. Either working-level officials have no say in the negotiations, or they opted to dump all the responsibilities onto the summit.
The second question is on the likelihood of a third meeting. Both sides showed all their cards in Hanoi. They left little room for compromise. The stony expression on Kim’s face suggested the young leader would aim for a post-Trump era. The Trump team also appears to be happy with itself for walking out of the talks. With current conditions, there are few, if any, possibilities of Washington trying to persuade Pyongyang to continue denuclearization talks unless Kim accepts the U.S. demands altogether. Both sides may have contacts, but negotiations are off for now.
The last question is why we didn’t expect such an outcome from the beginning. The Blue House seems to have been totally clueless about the sullen mood in Hanoi as its wise men gathered in front of television sets. Instead, they were actually expecting an end-of-war declaration from the two leaders up to 30 minutes before they learned of the breakdown. The Blue House kept secret that our national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, had been out of touch with his U.S. counterpart, Bolton, for months. Then why was Bolton in Hanoi? Washington may have feared that if it shared the details of its wild card, Seoul might leak them to Pyongyang. Can such possible distrust between the two allies be dispelled ever?
The Hanoi debacle also confirmed three misconceptions. First, North Korea’s intentions were misunderstood. The Seoul government had spoken on behalf of North Korea of its will for complete denuclearization. The world, as well as the South Korean people, believed that notion to be genuine. But the Hanoi talks revealed ambiguity in its denuclearization commitment. This is why the U.S. demanded a once-and-for-all big deal instead of a phased approach.
Second, Washington too has been mistaken. Some media hyped that Trump would make a deal with Kim in Hanoi with his eyes on an epochal political breakthrough, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize at the end of the year. Trump indeed has been notorious for his impromptu diplomatic style with little regard for conventions. But he at least kept his personal wishes aside, took the conventional route and walked away from the talks. The belief that there are doves and hawks in Washington was wrong. In Hanoi, the entire U.S. team played for the hawks.
Third, Seoul proved to be wrong. The Moon Jae-in administration was confident of its mediating role through inter-Korean economic ventures. A war-ending declaration and the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism or the industrial park had all been peripheral issues. The essence was denuclearization. The Hanoi summit made that clear. Our role has been laid out. All we can do — and must do — is persuade Kim to go completely nuclear-free. The Blue House remains deluded and only sticks to carrots. When will it abandon such wishful thinking?
JoongAng Ilbo, March 6, Page 30