Three weeks ago, in this column, I wrote about the significance of the venue with regard to talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi.
I also suggested that the place — Hanoi — would set the course for the negotiating process itself. The North Vietnamese capital was once a symbol of defiance against US imperialism while, for Washington, it was a symbol of communist expansion in democratic countries or in countries in the US orbit.
But time marched on after nearly a decade of the warfare that claimed millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of American lives and that destroyed both Vietnams, including their respective capitals, Hanoi and Saigon.
Less than two decades after that war ended, Vietnam embarked on a phase of rapid economic growth becoming a capitalist citadel on par with the Chinese one.
It was no longer possible to say who really won the Vietnamese war: the communists who drove the Americans out or the capitalists now that Vietnam had become part of the international capitalist market.
Hanoi also stood as a model for reunification to which the US and North Korea turned, against the backdrop of the still unresolved Korean war that began at the outset of the 1950s and the more recent exchanges of vitriol and nuclear sabre-rattling between Washington and Pyongyang, for the second meeting between the US and North Korean presidents.
At first glance, the Hanoi summit was a flop. It ended without a joint statement designating the next steps the two sides would take to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and to lift US sanctions against Pyongyang.
But this is not how to assess such complex negotiations that involve, on the one hand, nuclear weapons as well as other possible weapons of mass destruction, plus the missiles and other means to deploy them, and, on the other hand, economic sanctions imposed on North Korea by the US as well as the international community, which is a subject no less complicated than disarmament because once the sanctions arrangements are dismantled it is hard to put them in place again if need be.
To compound the difficulties and complexities, there is a tremendous amount of mutual mistrust which is aggravated, in turn, by domestic circumstances in both countries.
What Jong-Un needs to take home with him is not just an end to sanctions but also the realisation of the dream to catch up with developed countries, just as China and Vietnam did, while the last thing he wants is to end up like Libya which relinquished its nuclear and chemical weapons only to find NATO planes in the vanguard of the campaign to overthrow the Libyan regime and kill Gaddafi personally.
Trump has troubles of his own. The US is no longer the type of country in which the House of Representatives gives pause to the fact that the president is in the middle of some delicate negotiations in a foreign capital before summoning Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, for a hearing, not into the acts of corruption for which he will be handed a prison sentence in a few months’ time, but into allegations against his former boss, in Hanoi at the moment, whom he described as “a racist, a cheat and a con man.”
That congressional hearing was nothing if not dramatic. Although the stories of Trump’s relationships with porn stars were not new, the images of the cheques he signed to silence them were titillating and gave TV networks the opportunity to profile women with many a juicy scandal to expose.
And, while Trump and Jong-Un were discussing the details of nuclear disarmament and economic sanctions, Cohen was telling the House about Trump’s role in obtaining the Wikileaks documents that “spread dirt” about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Since Cohen concluded his testimony by furnishing Congress with a list of other people it can summon, the show will continue.
Trump desperately needed a diplomatic victory. But he knew that Hanoi was not Singapore. In the former he won a pledge from Jong-Un to nuclear disarm in return for a pledge to lift economic sanctions and reduce the US’s military profile in East Asia. But putting such pledges into action is another matter.
Trump stated he would fulfill his pledge only when the US and its allies could ascertain that North Korea was completely free of nuclear weapons and there was no shadow of doubt that it could not resume producing such weapons again. Jong-Un’s problem was that i
f he got rid of all his nuclear weapons, how would he compel the US to fulfill its end of the bargain? Therefore, he insisted that the US had to lift all sanctions first, and only then North Korea would clear out its nuclear arsenal.
Such positioning, in which each side insists the other meet its demands first, is old hat in negotiating processes. But it makes the items on the negotiating table clearer.
In this case they are nuclear dismantlement and lifting sanctions, both of which can be translated into a number of ascertainable technical steps for each side to perform reciprocally, so that each side gets some of what it has set out to get before they both reach their goals.
When framed this way, the negotiations in Hanoi were not a total failure. They were merely that negotiating stage in which both sides lay out their toughest stances which they might incrementally soften at later stages.
In fact, even if there was no breakthrough on the core issues on the negotiating table, there may have been other types of success. For example, there no longer exists the kind of tensions in which Trump threatens Kim with “fire and fury” and the latter threatens a nuclear attack against the US.
In the same vein, Chinese and Japanese nerves have calmed down, trade negotiations between the US and China are moving in a positive direction, relations between North and South Korea are growing warmer and, moreover, Trump made a commitment that peace would follow the Vietnamese economic model.
In a way, Trump is testing his diplomacy, which blends threats and intimidation with great economic lures, before trying it out elsewhere in the world, such as the Middle East. Whatever the case, there are more chapters to come in the Korean story.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hanoi part two