The second Trump-Kim summit has been declared a failure, but closer scrutiny reveals reasons for hope
The failure of the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi last week should not be the end of efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. Room for dialogue remains.
Trump decided to walk away from the summit after a deal could not be reached to close North Korea’s main nuclear facility in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Each side was quick to blame the other, offering a different version of events that led to the failure. Washington said North Korea wanted all sanctions lifted and in return had pledged to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Pyongyang promptly denied making any such proposal.
Trump’s post-summit press conference last Thursday met with a decidedly undiplomatic retaliation from North Korea, its Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho calling a late-night presser to reject US claims. Ri told reporters his government had offered to dismantle its Yongbyon facility in exchange only for “partial” sanctions relief.
In fact, the path to the outcome had been paved long before the leaders met in Hanoi. The proposals were prepared well before the summit, since both sides are aware that Yongbyon is
merely the hub of a far more complex nuclear programme while the sanctions contain many layers and are also linked to issues beyond that programme.
While Ri said the sanctions were impeding the civilian economy and people’s livelihoods, a US official later clarified that Washington had asked Pyongyang prior to the summit for a definition of sanctions it wanted included in the deal.
The sanctions under United Nations resolutions cover a broad range of products, including metals, raw materials, transportation, seafood, coal exports, refined petroleum imports, and raw petroleum imports.
Washington says Pyongyang made no clear offer to shut down Yongbyong. The nuclear facility has been at the core of North Korea’s weapon programme since the late 1990s, and as such has been the central focus of denuclearisation talks since the beginning.
The Yongbyong complex is a vast amalgam of institutions, buildings and support structures. The North Koreans, said President Trump at his conference, struggled to define exactly what at the sprawling complex they were willing to dismantle as part of the deal.
But while each side laid the blame for failure on the insincerity of the other, there remains plenty of room for further international dialogue with Pyongyang on denuclearisation of the peninsula.
Most notably, Trump said his personal relations with Kim remained healthy, praising the young statesman he once insulted as “rocketman” and calling him a great leader. Neither responded to the diplomatic failure by insulting the other. Trump did not rule out the possibility of another summit with Kim. The US leader may have “walked” but his stride was relaxed, meaning the door has not been slammed on talks. Trump also pledged there would be no further sanctions against North Korea. Kim gave his word there would be no more nuclear and missile testing.
Washington and Pyongyang would continue working-level negotiations to seek a deal, said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The political will to shut down the nuclear facility and to lift the sanctions remain, so both sides must now define and refine their demands towards a successful outcome.
The Yongbyong facility and the sanctions have something in common: both are complex and both contain many layers. A deal involving them can only unfold slowly, step by step. It might take time to reach that goal, but nobody should give up easily. Peace is at stake.