SEOUL: On Thursday (Feb 28) morning, before the start of formal negotiations, US President Donald Trump attempted to temper the expectations of those watching the second summit between his country and North Korea by saying that he was in no rush to reach an agreement to denuclearise North Korea.
The two countries have been enemies since the Korean War of the early 1950s and, last June in Singapore, Trump became the first US president to ever meet with a North Korean leader.
Be patient, Trump seemed to be saying.
Several hours later, he was back in front of the media, attempting to explain how the talks with North Korea had gone so poorly that they were called off early, and the two leaders parted without reaching any agreement, or even having lunch together, as was the plan.
FOR THE AMERICANS, NO SURPRISE AT ALL
While the abruptness was surprising, what Trump, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pointed to as the reason for the breakdown was no surprise at all.
The North Koreans, Trump said, had asked for the lifting of all sanctions, in exchange for only partial denuclearisation.
North Korea has a history of successfully making empty promises that it will get rid of its nuclear weapons.
Over the past year, amid the unprecedented cordiality between North Korea and the US, Trump has been trying to avoid the perception that he is being strung along by North Korea, that the steely Kim Jong Un would be able to play on Trump’s vanity and wrest a series of concessions from him without giving up much of value.
To distract from his domestic problems, in particular the allegations made by his former lawyer Michael Cohen, whose remarks to Congress formed the backdrop of the summit in Hanoi, Trump has ample incentive to plod along with diplomacy with North Korea.
Before the summit, I argued that Trump ought to insist that North Korea provide a full, detailed disclosure of what nuclear materials it already has.
If Kim refused that request, it would be a sign that he, at least for now, doesn’t intend to fully denuclearise.
While the US reportedly dropped that demand, Kim’s refusal to relinquish certain parts of the country’s nuclear programme sent a similar message, while he was seeking the full lifting of sanctions.
Trump didn’t rush into an uneven deal, and was able to avoid accusations that he fell for Kim’s charm and gave up too much.
The question is what to do next. At Thursday’s press conference, Trump seemed upbeat, and repeatedly underscored that he is committed to continued dialogue with North Korea, and the progress is ongoing, saying that Kim, “has a certain vision and it’s not exactly our vision but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago".
There was no breakthrough, but Trump can claim progress as long as North Korea continues to hold off on nuclear tests and other provocations. And he emerges from this round having redeemed his image, after many observers went away with the perception that he had been outmanoeuvred by Kim in the last one.
Still, some American taxpayers must be wondering right now why a contingent from their government spent all the time and money required to fly to Vietnam for a meeting that yielded no results, particularly when there are urgent challenges to address at home.
A VICTORY FOR NORTH KOREA
For North Korea, before the negotiations started, Kim won a propaganda victory that even he likely never would have imagined when Trump described him on Wednesday evening as a “great leader”.
For decades, North Korea has claimed in its domestic propaganda that, despite the country’s poverty and isolation, its ruling dynasty is admired by the world.
The country’s official news agency regularly carries reports of fringe figures speaking favorably about North Korean leaders with the goal of creating the impression that North Korea is not a pariah but a paragon.
A sitting US president’s enthusiastic endorsement of Kim (particularly the phrase “great leader,” the Korean translation of which is the honorific used for Kim’s grandfather, who he constantly tries to emulate) will be repeated throughout the country for a long time to come as proof that the two leaders’ meeting amounted to Trump paying tribute to Kim.
A HUGE DENT TO SOUTH KOREA’S REPUTATION
In South Korea, the administration of President Moon Jae-in is set to take the biggest hit. Moon has staked much of his political capital on ongoing engagement with the North, including moves to restart economic cooperation projects.
Like Trump, Moon is seeking distraction from stubborn problems on the homefront, particularly high unemployment and weak economic growth.
Trump also said on Thursday that he planned to speak with Moon by phone, and the two are certain to keep trying.
That brings us back to the old question, does North Korea earnestly plan to denuclearise?
There is no obvious reason to believe that they do, nor is there any reason to believe that if Trump and Kim hold another meeting in several months or a year that they will get any closer to a meaningful agreement.
CONTINUE WITH NEGOTIATION
Here I must repeat what I’ve been saying for months - that dialogue ought to be preferred, however little it accomplishes towards real denuclearisation, to the alternative of threats and tensions. Even if there is only the smallest chance of getting North Korea to denuclearise, negotiation is the only way to make it happen.
I hope Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang keep trying to cooperate, that one side can make some bold proposal that secures a breakthrough. That being said, it will be increasingly difficult for Trump to sell the US public on the need to hold another summit with North Korea.
Trump implied on Thursday, with some optimism, that the failure of the Hanoi summit was a bump on an otherwise productive path. “Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” he said.
It is anyone’s guess when, or if, he will ever walk back to the table.
Steven Borowiec is the politics editor of Korea Expose.