Trump Expects US-North Korea Relations to Follow Vietnam
President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un at Second Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by TheInsiderStories

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – Talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un collapsed after the two sides failed to bridge a standoff over United States (US) sanctions, a dispiriting end to high-stakes meetings meant to disarm a global nuclear threat.

Trump blamed the breakdown on North Korea’s insistence that all the punishing sanctions the US has imposed on Pyongyang be lifted without the North committing to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.

The disintegration of talks came after Trump and Kim had appeared to be ready to inch toward normalizing relations between their still technically warring nations and as the American leader dampened expectations that their negotiations would yield an agreement by North Korea to take concrete steps toward ending a nuclear program that Pyongyang likely sees as its strongest security guarantee.

Trump insisted his relations with Kim remained warm, but he did not commit to having a third summit. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters.

Longstanding US policy has insisted that US sanctions on North Korea would not be lifted until that country committed to, if not concluded, complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Trump declined to restate that goal Thursday, insisting he wanted flexibility in talks with Kim.

The failure in Hanoi laid bare a risk in Trump’s unpredictable negotiating style. Preferring one-on-one meetings with his foreign counterparts, his administration often eschews the staff-level work done in advance to assure a deal and envisions summits more as messaging opportunities than venues for hard-line negotiation.

There was disappointment and alarm in South Korea, whose liberal leader has been a leading of the nuclear diplomacy and who needs a breakthrough to restart lucrative engagement projects with the impoverished North. Yonhap news agency said that the clock on the Korean Peninsula’s security situation has “turned back to zero” and diplomacy is now “at a crossroads.”

Of course this is dangerous both for the interests of security on the Korean Peninsula and internationally. North Korean nuclear is not just a regional issue between Trump and Kim. It is also a challenging and pressing issue for allies and partners of US, from European countries to Japan and South Korea. The stakes for Tokyo and Seoul are obvious, given their proximity to Pyongyang and its nuclear arsenal.

The European Union (EU) also has a direct interest in the stability of East Asia, if only for economic reasons. Europe’ interest toward North Korea is not only about sanctions, but possible dialogue and potential aid. Sweden hosted North Korea talks ahead of the second summit between Trump and Kim. And France, a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nation Security Council with the firmest stance among EU members on North Korea denuclearization, has offered its expertise in the dismantling of North Korea nuclear warheads.

The EU welcomed the Singapore Summit in 2018 and the joint statement issued after the summit with caution. The following withdrawal of Trump from the Iran deal, a major issue for Europe, didn’t increase US credibility in the current nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

On the same note, Trump’s erratic attitude toward his traditional partners in Asia and the transatlantic alliance did not help to create the necessary confidence in the future continued strategic engagement of the US. And Pyongyang is a master in exploiting gaps between Washington and its allies.

At the same time, Trump’s China strategy, mixing trade negotiations with the ambition to see Beijing play a greater role in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by exerting more pressure on Pyongyang, is a risky gambit. It opens the way to increased maneuvering space both for China and North Korea, at the expense of US allies’ interests in Asia.

Consequently, viewed from Europe as from Asia, the results of US-North Korea nuclear diplomacy were disappointing. Kim normalized his international image and obtained a suspension on US-South Korea military exercises in exchange for a freeze on missile and nuclear testing.

No deal agreement between Trump, Kim also raised stability issues in Northeast Asia and the future of the nonproliferation regime, the main point of emphasis for France, would be a reduction in US forces on the Korean Peninsula or the possibility for North Korea to defend some weapons of mass destruction in return for stopping its nuclear weapons program and dismantling intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Tokyo also faces hard challenges, including to its foreign strategy craftsmanship. The future of the US-Japan alliance is at stake from this no deal agreement. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan have been, with France, among the firmest proponents of the complete, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But apart from the nuclear issue, Japan has its own concerns that need to be addressed in order for Tokyo to normalize its relations with North Korea. The issue of medium-range missiles is the first one. A deal taking only into account intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that can reach American territory would increase the risk of decoupling between the US and Japan concerning the North Korean threat – and potentially other security issues.

At the same time, tensions between Japan and South Korea offer new potentialities for the North Korean regime and reduce the chance of a separate meeting and negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang to solve the abductees issue. The inter-Korean warming can only contribute to the further marginalization of Japan. This is a real challenge for Tokyo.

The current South Korean government has its own agenda on history, as well as on relations with Pyongyang. In spite of past agreements, the latest on the comfort women issue in 2015, historical issues are once again being used to cement of the Korean sense of identity in a divided peninsula, in a context where Seoul also does not want to be marginalized by negotiations involving Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing.

However, Japan and South Korea’s superior strategic interests should come first and a better sense of priorities between different issues should be imposed by the leadership of both countries, whose constituencies often remain too inward looking.

Written by Lexy Nantu, Email: lexy@theinsiderstories.com