No Deal, No Dice: Trump-Kim Summit Terminates Prematurely
The second highly anticipated summit between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, scheduled to run for at least two full days starting on Feb. 27, 2019, was abruptly cut short after US officials notified reporters covering the summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28 that the scheduled lunch between Trump and Kim had been canceled and further negotiations terminated.
After the conclusion of the first summit between Trump and Kim, held in June 2018 in Singapore as the first such meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries since the 1953 Korean War armistice, the two jointly signed a document committing to establish relations, “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” strive for “complete denuclearization” of the Peninsula, and identify and repatriate war dead. The two leaders — albeit with the US President being more vocal on the subject — also pledged to meet again to iron out the specifics of a new denuclearization initiative proposed at Singapore.
The intervening months since the Singapore summit have seen a wide variety of events occur, some of which appeared to make a second summit unlikely. While additional talks between the leaders of the two rival Korean governments did produce groundbreaking diplomatic commitments that were poised to lower tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul in September 2018, bilateral negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over the issue of denuclearization stalled by October, with the situation not helped by the US media responses to reports of North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles in November that declared Pyongyang to be “[engaging] in a great deception.”
The US domestic political situation, especially in the wake of the opposition Democratic Party securing control of the lower house of the US legislature in the November midterm elections and additional developments in the investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, also seemed likely to curb any second summit with Kim as Trump became increasingly embroiled in bitter domestic partisan fights. However, Trump announced in his (delayed) State of the Union Address on Feb. 5 that he would meet Kim for a second time on Feb. 27 to 28; the White House confirmed on Feb. 8 that summit would take place in Hanoi, Vietnam.
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim entered Vietnam via armored train through China, with his motorcade entering Hanoi on Feb. 26 while US President Trump arrived by plane later the same day. The summit formally began on the following day at Hanoi’s Metropole hotel, with observers noting the hasty preparation for the summit and the lack of agreement by the two sides on the ultimate goals for the negotiations offered low expectations for any conclusive deal to be reached. A “cozy social dinner” between only the two leaders and translators along with events earlier in the day — including an all-smiles impromptu flag-waving exchange between Trump and Vietnam’s Prime Minister — appeared to signal the good personal chemistry between Trump and Kim along with the viability of the summit, although nothing substantive was produced by the end of Feb. 27.
The second day of talks started with intense back-and-forth negotiations between the two sides, with preparations of the document containing the final agreement to be signed in front of reporters made known to the media pool. Seeming agreement between the two leaders on a joint definition of “denuclearization” and Pyongyang’s continued commitment to not conduct additional tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry gave way to an impasse, however, as the two leaders reportedly could not agree on lifting sanctions or carrying out full inspections of North Korean sites. As such, US officials announced that Trump would hold his press conference two hours early and the scheduled lunch between him and Kim would not be happening.
It remains unclear what exactly transpired to sink the talks. In Trump’s wide-ranging press conference, he asserted that Kim had required Washington lift all economic sanctions on Pyongyang in exchange for the closure of one large nuclear facility — a requirement that was evidently not palatable to the US delegation — and stressed that the abrupt termination of the talks “wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out. No, this was very friendly.”
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, in a rare press conference held hours after Trump’s, stated that his delegation had made “realistic proposals” to the US and did not ask for the complete lifting of sanctions. Instead, per Ri’s account, Pyongyang had asked for only “partial relief from sanctions that hurt people’s livelihoods,” with experts suggesting that Pyongyang may have focused on the multilateral (and more comprehensive) sanctions levied by the United Nations Security Council instead of those levied only by Washington.
While both parties voiced their hopes for holding additional negotiations in the near future, reactions across East Asia to the premature termination of the talks have been decidedly mixed. South Korean President Moon Jae-in described the talks on Mar. 1 as having produced “meaningful” progress and enhancing the role of Seoul in future negotiations before pledging to “closely communicate and cooperate” with the two countries “so as to help their talks reach a complete settlement by any means.” However, Korean financial markets thought otherwise, with Seoul’s KOSPI marking its largest single-day loss since late October 2018 and the South Korean won weakening against the dollar.
On the other hand, the Japanese government cautiously welcomed the result (or lack thereof) of the talks, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noting on the evening of Feb. 28 that Trump “didn’t make any easy concessions, and at the same time decided to promote constructive talks and thereby urge North Korea to take concrete actions. I fully support this decision by President Trump.” Policy experts in Tokyo had previously expressed their misgivings about Trump’s dogged pursuit for a second summit, with the unpredictability of Trump raising concerns over whether or not the US would offer significant concessions — including downgrading military ties with Seoul (and possibly Tokyo) — in order to make a deal.
At press time, China had not made any open statement or direct comment on the breakdown of the talks. Given the context of a simmering trade war and lingering security issues vis a vis Taiwan and the South China Sea, Trump’s move to terminate talks may have been intentional as another form of signaling strength to Beijing.
North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported on Mar. 1 that Trump and Kim agreed to continue “productive dialogues” to discuss and resolve issues that cropped up at the Hanoi summit. Noting the two leaders also “agreed to keep in close touch with each other for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” KCNA stated that Kim “expressed thanks to Trump” regarding “the successful meeting” before “promising the next meeting.” No further elaboration was given by KCNA regarding any future meeting between the two.