The world was waiting for a breakthrough in the second American-North Korean summit that brought US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un of North Korea face-to-face in Hanoi, Vietnam, 27-28 February.
However, President Trump took the world by surprise, announcing alone that the sides had decided to end the second summit without either a final declaration or a signed document on the way forward in denuclearisation negotiations.
The US president pointed out in a relatively extended press conference last Thursday that “sometimes you have to walk” from negotiations instead of reaching a bad deal.
According to Trump, the second summit did not produce tangible results because Chairman Kim would not commit to dismantle other elements of North Korea’s weapons programme, other than the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the major known nuclear facility in the North.
Further, he added that the North Koreans wanted the lifting of all sanctions against their country. However, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho refuted this American version, saying that North Korea asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions, specifically UN Security Council resolutions of 2016 and 2017 — a demand that makes sense in so far as it relates to sanctions covering North Korean workers abroad, oil imports and financial transactions.
If denuclearisation would be gradual and proportional to sanctions lifted, diplomats will not find the North Korean position, in this respect, extreme or beyond reach.
It is interesting to note that the North Korean foreign minister linked his country’s position to the present level of trust between the United States and North Korea.
He stressed in this regard that the existing level of trust between the two countries meant that North Korea can’t go beyond its offered concessions at present.
He warned that, “this kind of opportunity may never come again.” We should take this not as a warning, but rather as stressing the importance of gradual and proportional denuclearisation that will go hand in hand with corresponding measures on the part of the United States, and South Korea, as well on a host of questions related to peace, security and normal relations in the Korean Peninsula.
Needless to say, President Trump did his best to sweeten the surprising end of his second summit with Chairman Kim by saying that this “was not a walk away, like you get up and walk out.
No, this was very friendly. We shook hands,” and that “Kim committed to maintain a halt on nuclear and ballistic missiles tests,” now in force for 16 months.
The official North Korean news agency stuck a conciliatory note in reporting the conclusion of the summit, saying the two leaders “had agreed to keep in close touch with each other,” and “continue productive dialogues”.
The South Korean government, according to its spokesperson, reaffirmed that establishing a more stable peace is the first priority.
He added: “It is regrettable that they [the Americans and the North Koreans] could not reach a complete agreement. But it also seems clear that both sides have made more significant progress than ever.”
To drive this point home, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told American reporters that the summit talks “made some progress, but we did not get as far as we would have hoped to have gotten”.
Then he emphasised the need for what he called a “theory of the case” about how to move forward, adding: “I have seen enough congruence between what the two sides are trying to accomplish.” He made clear that the two governments have “a set of shared common understandings”. Nonetheless, he underlined, “there is still a lot of work.”
This brings up the thorny question of timing and sequencing in carrying out the objectives at hand, taking into account the fact that the level of trust between the United States and North Korea does not allow for easy negotiations.
Maybe the Americans should proceed at the present stage with the idea that the North will never denuclearise in full at one go. It is not realistic on the part of American negotiators to insist on such a commitment and the implementation of a complete, full and verifiable denuclearisation in one, two or three years.
The timeframe that they should think of is at least a decade in which most sanctions should be lifted and inter-Korean relations are sufficiently normalised.
That would go a long way towards ensuring stability and an informal peace in case the Americans are not prepared to sign a final peace deal till the North is completely denuclearised. Another option for the United States to think about is freezing North Korean nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles at present levels with onsite and intrusive verification on the ground for a substantial period of time, till the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is reached.
After all, the Sentosa Summit last June between President Trump and Chairman Kim talked about the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and not just that of North Korea.
In the months to come, the South Korean government will, undoubtedly, redouble its diplomatic efforts to make sure that American-North Korean negotiations advance till the moment Washington and Pyongyang agree on a third summit, this time well-prepared and leaving no details to chance.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In, speaking Friday, 1 March, in Seoul while commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule, said: “The coming 100 years will differ from the past… We will push ahead with a bold transition towards a new Korean Peninsula regime and prepare for unification.”
He stressed that he will work with North Korea in order to create “a new order of peace and cooperation”. He committed to the establishment of a “permanent peace regime… on the basis of… close ROK (Republic of South Korea)-US coordination, a settlement in North Korea-US talks and support from the international community”.
He pointed out that once there is progress in denuclearisation talks between the Americans and the North Koreans, without elaborating on the definition of progress, an inter-Korean economic committee will be established with the aim of producing an “economic achievement that benefits the two Koreas.”
Moreover, he said, the South Korean government would consult with Washington on ways to resume stalled tourist tours on Mount Kumgang on the North’s east coast and the operation of the joint industrial complex in the North’s border city of Kaesong.
A couple of months ago, President Trump took a hard line against any significant and concrete thaw in inter-Korean relations. If he changes his mind after the Hanoi Summit maybe such a change in policy will make it easier for the North Koreans to trust more the United States as far as the long-term prospects of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula are concerned.
In this context, the agreement between the South Korean and American governments to end large-scale military exercises in South Korea — an agreement announced Saturday, 2 March — is a significant concession to the North Koreans who have always looked at these joint exercises as a major provocation.
It is a highly important step in the right direction. According to a readout of a phone conversation between Patrick Shanahan, the US acting secretary of defense, and Jeong Kyeong-doo, the South Korean minister of national defense, the two “made clear that the… decision to adapt our training programme reflected our desire to reduce tension and support our diplomatic efforts to achieve complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a final, fully verified manner”.
Furthermore, it seems that the Americans and the North Koreans have almost agreed, in principle, on opening liaison offices in Washington DC and in Pyongyang.
The major challenge for the Americans and the North Koreans in the next few months will be how to make sure that progress achieved so far is irreversible.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A new Korean order