By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*
(FPRI) — Among the range of possible outcomes discussed before the summit, ending with nothing at all was something few, if any, had bet on. It seemed much more likely that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would agree to measures that were relatively minor in scope but big on symbolism, such as a declaration ending the Korean War. In terms of concessions and gains, the U.S., seemed perhaps likely to get the dismantling of at least some parts of the Yongbyon plant or other facilities. North Korea may have expected specific and limited sanctions relief, perhaps a measure that would have allowed it to move ahead on economic exchanges with South Korea. The summit abruptly ended with neither, and, at the time of this writing, the North Korean and U.S. versions of what happened differ quite significantly.
Is this bad?
Yes, it is, but not terrible. The process will certainly lose some momentum, though both parties have vowed to keep talking. The statement by Foreign Minister Ri indicates that the U.S. and North Korea are further away from each other’s position than two countries would reasonably be before holding a summit. At this moment, it is unclear why more progress could not be made at the working-group level prior to the summit – and, no less important, what progress will be possible now that wasn’t possible prior to the two leaders’ meeting.
Later at night local time (South Korea and Vietnam), North Korean Foreign Minister Ri yong-ho upped the drama. At a press conference on Thursday night, Ri stated that North Korea had suggested a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for dismantling the nuclear plant in Yongbyon. Ri said that North Korea had demanded a “partial” lifting of sanctions, namely, those that concern ”people’s livelihoods.” The issue is that the sanctions Ri seems to be talking about are virtually all the ones that truly matter when it comes to pressuring North Korea economically. Prior to these sanctions, loopholes were so numerous that China, North Korea’s main trade partner, basically did not think it necessary to implement them with any rigor.
Ri’s statement was a response to a claim Trump made during his own press conference earlier in the day. Trump said:
“[b]asically, [North Korea] wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
At first, this seemed entirely implausible. How could North Korea think that the U.S. would realistically agree to something like that? My first assumption was that Trump had misspoken – so implausible did the claim seem. At best, from a North Korean point of view, the U.S. would work to lift certain sanctions in exchange for concrete North Korean concessions on the nukes.
With Ri’s press conference, however, it does sound like Trump’s version was right. North Korea demanded that virtually all sanctions levied since 2016 be lifted in exchange for North Korea’s dismantling of key parts of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The thing is, in practice, this comes pretty close to “sanctions […] in their entirety,” since it’s only since 2016 that the sanctions started to have a truly significant impact on the North Korean economy as a whole. So Trump neither misspoke nor exaggerated, it seems. Over the coming days, more news is sure to emerge about what really transpired behind the scenes. It seems clear, however, that the summit was held prematurely, perhaps because both Kim and Trump deemed it a necessary exercise in its own right, for their respective home audiences.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s President Moon is caught in the middle. The South Korean administration clearly expected progress of some significance. Moon has banked a great deal of political capital on the peace process with North Korea. Moon not only sees it as politically crucial but also regards investments and economic cooperation with North Korea as a key future driver for South Korea’s (now sluggish) growth. He has not had an easy time domestically over the past few months, and the general public’s faith in his ability to remedy the country’s economic woes has been waning quickly.
Early on during the day of the summit, President Moon’s office announced that he was going to announce a new set of future policies for inter-Korean cooperation and a “new Korean Peninsula regime” the day following the summit, partially in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement, a large-scale protest movement against Japanese colonial rule over Korea. According to South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo, the Blue House Presidential office was in a state of “panic” after news broke about events in Hanoi.
This is entirely understandable. North and South Korea are eager to re-open the Mount Kumgang resort and the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and these two measures would be only a relatively moderate start. Now the two countries can most likely only proceed with relatively moderate forms of cooperation for the foreseeable future, such as cultural exchange and perhaps medical aid from South to North Korea. On Friday, despite all that had happened, President Moon went ahead and declared that South Korea will continue working with the United States to re-open both Kumgang and Kaesong. It was hardly a realistic thing to talk about at this stage, but at the same time, he had little choice but to keep a hopeful posture.
Despite all the drama on Thursday, all hope does not seem lost for progress between the U.S. and North Korea. Trump seemed sincere in his desire to continue talking to Kim. He made it clear that they had an agreement ready, which they chose not to sign, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. The main outlines of some sort of agreement are likely in place already. It may well have been a matter of details and sequencing around concessions, and details could be worked through in working-level meetings, without the pressure of time and prestige of the Hanoi summit. Talks will continue – Trump made this very clear during today’s press conference, and his comments gave little reason to doubt his sincerity. Though Foreign Minister Ri’s tone was harsh, he also seemed clear that North Korea wants the talks to continue. North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun confirmed this through their Thursday edition, which reported on the summit primarily as an important step for building trust between the two leaders.
Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea will continue. The momentum may not be the same, particularly if North Korea begins looking more toward China for closer ties and synchrony over the coming months. Meanwhile, Trump has plenty to deal with at home, and will remain occupied elsewhere. Still, both leaders want a deal. At the end of the day, the question remains if their versions of the shape of that deal can be bridged.
*About the author: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an Associate Scholar and 2019 Templeton Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region.
Source: This article was published by FPRI