On Thursday, February 28th, President Donald Trump walked away from the table that was overwhelmingly praised by news outlets and political commentators weeks prior. Trump expected to leave with a guarantee from Kim that Pyongyang would give up its missile and nuclear weapons. Kim, on the other hand, expected to leave Hanoi with a signed agreement that outlined the complete lifting of economic sanctions. However, Kim’s expectations were also challenged by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s comments that suggested only a “partial lifting” was asked for. The clear rift in their understandings and non-negotiables headed into the summit were what led to the failure to reach a deal on denuclearization. However, one may still ask – was the Hanoi summit an overall failure or success, aside from the production of tangible policy outcomes?
Both sides of the table entered the summit fully expecting to leave with a deal that satisfied their expectations. The White House was confident that Trump and Kim would sign a joint declaration advancing negotiations, including the event on Trump’s public schedule. Instead, the summit concluded with both the signing ceremony and working lunch getting scrapped. At the same time, Trump kept the door open to continuing negotiations and made it clear he would continue the freeze on joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. He also expressed interest in meeting with Kim for another summit as long as a pre-developed plan is set in stone for signing, confirming that Trump has yet to entirely drop the ball on U.S.-North Korean ties. However, the outcomes of the summit may be evidence of the weaknesses that lie in his personality-driven diplomacy that has served as the crux of most of his foreign policy tactics.
Trump is well-known for his break-the-mold approach, especially with North Korea, as he has opted to directly engage with Kim from the outset instead of initiating lower-level talks that build to eventual talks with officials. Bold initiatives like these, coupled with affectionate and emotionally volatile language, have defined the United States’ stance towards North Korea and made the relationship with the country quite hazy. This past Hanoi summit may have served as the tipping point to Trump’s commitment to this diplomatic approach, as it is less promising as it seemed during the initial Singapore summit. Personal rapport is clearly not enough to overcome the impasse that exists between the two sides, raising questions of whether Trump should have met Kim for the second time at all. Trump also failed to answer questions surrounding Kim’s knowledge of Otto Warmbier’s mistreatment during his imprisonment, only to conclude that Kim was supposedly unaware.
Global responses to the summit have been generally negative, especially from bordering nations and those in the Eastern hemisphere. The breakdown of the meeting was a huge blow for Moon Jae-In who eagerly awaited the lifting of sanctions. Moon desires to build an inter-Korean economic community through his “New Korean Peninsula Economic Map” peninsula that includes projects like an inter-Korean factory park and tourism zone. South Korean President Moon was eager to increase economic ties with North Korea if a sanctions-lifting deal were to have been brokered in Hanoi. As for Japan, the lack of a deal was more of a relief – Abe has been worried that a deal could lead to key U.S. security concessions to North Korea, placing Japan in a far more vulnerable place security-wise. Japan desires to see more concrete steps being taken by the North, such as a complete abandonment of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Trump’s walk away from the summit has been equated to President Reagan’s walk away from the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Clearly, the circumstances and context of the Reykjavik Summit were critically different from those of the recent Hanoi summit – Reagan viewed the deal to pose constraints on U.S. interests in strategic defense and hence walked away from the possibility of restraining a strong defensive front. Even with the departure, the U.S. and Soviet Union lessened their nuclear weapons stockpiles by over 80 percent in intervening years. North Korean denuclearization is far more complex, however, with challenges such as verification mechanisms, appropriate timings for sanctions relief, and the clear development of a definition of denuclearization. With a leader far less interested in reform and harrowingly involved in human rights atrocities, one may ask what the path to denuclearization exactly is for North Korea – and what the U.S. can do to propel the unitary one-party republic towards that path.
So, with the details of the summit, Trump’s unique diplomacy approach and global responses being considered, we may ask ourselves – was the Hanoi summit a success or failure? Rather than being one or the other, it may have been more of a check and reassessment on President Trump’s refusal to accept the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea. One can hope that Trump’s comments that “sometimes you have to walk” do not hold true for continued relations with the country.