Biden must learn from Trump's mistakes on North Korea

4 March 2021

5:30 PM

4 March 2021

5:30 PM

Anniversaries are usually celebratory occasions, but not this one. It’s now been two years since the infamous Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, and there is precious little to show other than an important lesson in how negotiations with North Korea can sour.

Joe Biden is now nearing his first one-hundred days in office. Little has been said about dealing with the North Korea problem. But one thing is for sure: a US-North Korea summit is far from imminent.

Following their first encounter in Singapore in June 2018, it suited Trump and Kim to meet again. For both leaders, the theatre and optics of their gathering was too good to resist a second outing. It is then that things appeared to go wrong. The Singapore statement committed to ‘establish new U.S.-DPRK relations’, seeing the North pledge to ‘work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. But at Hanoi at the end of February 2019, there was to be no joint statement nor a post-summit lunch for Trump, Kim, and their respective officials.

At its core, the notorious collapse of the summit was caused by a lack of consensus on the concessions Washington would offer to Pyongyang, specifically in terms of sanctions easing. North Korea was unable to convince Trump to lift specific sanctions targeting its economy. This has been well-documented by Trump’s former US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who told Trump to ‘walk out’ if talks did not reach a deal satisfactory to the United States. Although Kim seemed to have been willing to put the Yongbyon nuclear facility on the negotiating table – or at least parts of it – Trump would not acquiesce. He wanted additional facilities beyond Yongbyon, a move unacceptable to the North Korean leader.

Hanoi offers a useful lesson for any deals with North Korea involving not just the United States, but also South Korea, especially regarding the peril of unrealistic expectations. At Hanoi, Kim expected Trump to lift sanctions with ease; Trump expected Kim to concede on more than a single, old, nuclear facility. The cordial relations between the individual leaders – which continued even after the summit – were no substitute for paltry inter-state ties.

The history of bilateral and multilateral talks with North Korea show that it is hard enough to get the DPRK even to show up at the negotiating table, let alone ‘negotiate’, as was witnessed in the short-lived Six-Party Talks in the 2000s. But the Covid-19 pandemic has done what no sanctions could do, in crippling North Korea’s economy. The question remains whether North Korea will be forced to ask for help.

Sitting in Beijing, Xi Jinping was no stranger to regular meetings with Kim, who famously debriefed his Chinese counterpart post-Singapore, and visited Beijing little over a month before heading to Hanoi.

Even despite the pandemic-induced closure of the Sino-North Korean border in January 2020, China remains North Korea’s one main partner in international relations. Yet solving the North Korea problem requires dexterity from Beijing, amidst its concerns with stability and order, domestically and internationally. China seems willing to voice its support for North Korea’s denuclearisation, back United Nations sanctions against the DPRK (as seen in 2017 – a move criticised by Pyongyang), while also pushing for economic initiatives with the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’. Coupled with its ultimate fear of North Korean regime instability, Beijing still wants to avoid being excluded from any future denuclearisation ‘deal’ involving Washington and Pyongyang.

For now, we are a long way off from any such agreement, much to the dismay of South Korean president Moon Jae-in, for whom time is running out in pursing his pro-engagement approach towards his northern counterpart. Somewhat cynically, the days of inter-Korean summitry, as witnessed in 2018, seem reminiscent of a bygone past; a mere vehicle for Kim Jong-un to bolster his own status domestically and receive pledges of economic assistance from the South, but little else.

Another dilemma remains for Seoul: the pursuit of a more independent approach towards the North might bring Moon his desired engagement – not just political, but economic – when Covid is ‘over’. But this risks diverging from what seems to be the favoured approach of the US, not least continued sanctions enforcement.

The longer Washington waits to develop any policy towards Pyongyang, the more time in the hands of Pyongyang to bolster its weaponised nuclear capabilities, and continue its egregious human rights violations on its citizens.

As the US and South Korea prepare to conduct their annual military exercises next week – which has been a core target of North Korean criticism from the rule of Kim Il-Sung – it’s important to remember that negotiations require actions on both sides. While the Biden administration’s policies towards the DPRK remain shrouded in secrecy, a continued approach of sanctions and pressure without any form of dialogue won’t help. Instead, this approach risks marooning the international community in a never-ending quandary of how to resolve the North Korean issue; nuclear and beyond.

It was once said that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but moving forward with a nuclear North Korea, a ‘small deal’ approach may be the best we can hope for. If it results in the concession – albeit paltry – of Yongbyon, or otherwise, it still marks progress which is otherwise non-existent. To go into any dialogue with denuclearisation as the starting point – rather than one possible, if rare, objective – would be a flaw on the part of the US and its allies.

As Trump made explicit in Hanoi, ‘sometimes you have to walk’. Two years on from Trump’s North Korea summit, we must face the pessimistic reality that North Korea is not walking away from its nuclear weapons any time soon.

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