Saving the talks
The author is the former Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and former Ambassador to Russia.
The collapse of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, triggered ominous repercussions. North Korea hinted at halting dialogue with the United States. The denuclearization and peace negotiations are at a crossroads again. The major issue is how to tackle this stalemate. To find a solution, we need to precisely diagnose how things got this way. The immediate cause of the summit’s breakdown was the wide gap between Washington and Pyongyang over denuclearization. But fundamentally, several factors contributed to the failure.
First, both sides overly relied on a top-down approach. Such thorny issues like North Korean nuclear weapons were simply passed on to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump without sufficient lower-level preparation. The approach was perceived to be a prescription to supplant the bottom-up approach. In fact, both approaches have their own merits and demerits, which is why they’re complementary to each other. When Kim, the young leader of a small, poor country, met with Trump, the entrepreneur-turned-president of a superpower who’s self-centered and unpredictable, their summit was like mixing two substances that could explode when mixed together in the hopes of creating gold. The result was a collapsed summit.
The second reason why the Kim-Trump meeting broke down was North Korea’s sense of triumphalism. During the first summit in Singapore last year, North Korea thought it had the upper hand in negotiations with the United States because it believed Kim used his nuclear capabilities as leverage to strike a deal benefitting the regime, while Trump appeared to be in a rush to return home with something to brag about. Pyongyang had been carried away with what they saw as their victory in Singapore. After the Singapore summit, North Korea was bent on striking a deal with Trump. It thought Trump would accept its offer in Hanoi. But that turned out to be a misjudgment.
Third, the Hanoi summit ended in failure due to counteroffensives from Washington’s mainstream diplomats and security experts. After the Singapore meeting, they focused on achieving denuclearization through working-level discussions. After Pyongyang refused and offered to hold another summit, the mainstream politicians in the Trump administration wanted to make progress in denuclearization through the Hanoi summit. Nevertheless, North Korea suggested a trade-off between their demolishment of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and an easing of sanctions.
Washington couldn’t accept that offer because solely getting rid of the Yongbyon complex meant the North’s nuclear weapons, missiles and other facilities would remain intact. So the United States suggested North Korea entirely relinquish its nuclear weapons and missiles. Pyongyang turned that down because it assumed they had already agreed in Singapore to adopt a phased denuclearization. In the end, Trump chose to storm out of the summit without signing a deal.
What about the future? We need to recall Kim’s New Year’s address. Kim warned that if the United States continues to pressure the North with sanctions, the regime would seek a “new path.” Pyongyang could be considering that choice by now because in Hanoi, the United States gave the impression it would continue its pressure and sanctions campaign.
So what’s the solution? The most important thing is to prevent circumstances from worsening and focus on the restoration of negotiations. For that to happen, South Korea, North Korea and the United States must all be cautious and see what adjustments they need to make.
First, Seoul needs to closely coordinate with Washington. South Korea may be tempted to try to find a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization talks by resorting to improving inter-Korean relations. But that approach can hardly help due to resistance from the United States.
Second, Seoul has to convince Pyongyang to act with more flexibility, inform them about Washington’s thoughts and teach the regime what catastrophic results their triumphalism can cause.
Third, Seoul has to ask Washington for restraint as well. When Trump walked out of the Hanoi summit, he was praised. If Trump resorts to such a domineering attitude, it will prove no good. At issue is Washington’s obsession with a comprehensive deal and the strengthening of sanctions. Pyongyang disapproves of a comprehensive deal, which is why negotiations are tough.
Fourth, Seoul has to work with Washington and Pyongyang to bring their talks back on track. South Korea also needs to readjust expectations for the top-down method, enhance working-level negotiations and search for a possible agreement to avert a catastrophe.
Last, Seoul should keep Trump’s attention on the denuclearization issue. Failing to do so may lead to the United States returning to its hard-line stance. Signs of such an alarming turnaround are already surfacing. South Korea needs to stimulate communication between Trump and Kim.
The situation isn’t looking good after the Hanoi summit. The status quo forces both Koreas and the United States to look back on their approaches. The only way to revive negotiations and prevent a catastrophe is to think realistically and exercise self-restraint.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, March 30-31, Page 35