Expectations were low going into the recent summit in Hanoi between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but nobody expected that the two leaders would end up saying goodbye before lunch.
The two men left amicably, leaving the door open to future talks while putting a gloss on their failure to make progress. Neither leader wanted to declare the summit a failure because they both need good news out of the relationship.
Yet by traditional diplomatic standards, the summit was a massive failure. Normally, diplomats work out tentative agreements in advance through a series of negotiations. The meeting between leaders puts the final touches on agreements and is largely ceremonial. If disagreements remain, leaders delay announcing a summit, to give diplomats more time to work things out.
As media reports have it, Trump and Kim wanted to hold the summit even though diplomats had made little progress in preliminary meetings. Since entering politics in 2015, Trump has rejected conventional advice and instead relied on gut instincts developed over years in New York real estate deals. Kim rightly understands this about Trump and thought that direct talks might work to his advantage.
The failure of the Hanoi summit has naturally raised anxiety about the future direction of the peace process. Three directions are clear: watch and wait, return to 2017, and magic breakthrough. The easiest direction is to maintain the status quo and wait for a future opening.
For Trump, this has an obvious benefit: he can continue to argue that his approach to North Korea is working and a future opening might occur on his watch. For Kim, the approach carries more risk. He needs sanctions lifted to spur economic growth that he has promised his people.
Reports of recent activity at North Korean missile launch sites suggest that a return to 2017 tensions is possible if North Korea tests another missile. A test would put great pressure on Trump to abandon negotiations and return to his hardline approach of 2017. Hawks in the administration and in the halls of government are no doubt waiting for such an opportunity. They would use it as confirmation that negotiations with North Korea do not work. Trump could easily embrace this position because he could blame the return to 2017 on North Korea.
A return to 2017 offers Kim no chance of an economic breakthrough, but it would show hardliners in North Korea that he will not give up nuclear weapons and that he remains committed to the eternal war against the US.
A magic breakthrough would involve an agreement on denuclearisation, lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition and more. Trump would quickly use such an agreement to show that he is a peacemaker. This would be helpful in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election. For Kim, it would allow him to focus intently on economic development.
South Korea also has much to gain from a magic breakthrough and it has worked to turn that hope into reality. President Moon Jae-in played a key role in starting negotiations between the US and North Korea and will no doubt continue those efforts. For the South, a return to 2017 would make those efforts difficult and create new stresses in its relationship with the US and North Korea.
What then is holding back a magic breakthrough? Trust. Progress will be difficult until the three parties address this issue. After a bitter war and years of tension, it is natural that trust is in short supply. Trust grows through actions more than it does from words because talk is cheap.
Conservatives in the three countries, in particular, use the lack of trust to bolster their arguments favouring a hardline approach. Self-interest also motivates them because they benefit in some way from continued tension. All three nations have a military-industrial complex that profits from tension, not peace. The military-industrial complex in North Korea is particularly powerful because so much of the country’s GDP goes to the military. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, two crowning achievements of the North Korean military-industrial complex, are very hard to give up.
The failure of the Hanoi summit underscores the lack of trust between the US and North Korea. It also suggests that conservatives in both countries and in South Korea continue to exert influence over leaders who remain tempted by the prospect of a dazzling magic breakthrough. To move forward, leaders in the three countries need to focus on actions that build trust.
Robert J Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korean issues from Pawtucket, Rhode Island.