US-North Korea Summit: Five Key Questions Answered

Chatham House experts analyse the outcome of the second summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and examine wider contexts for the Asia region, international security, and US foreign policy.

President Donald Trump (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) during their second summit meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images

1) How will Asia’s regional powers — South Korea, Japan and China — react to the outcome of the summit?

John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

South Korea’s President Moon will be bitterly disappointed by the Hanoi outcome, having invested so much political capital at home and abroad in wooing both the North Koreans and Donald Trump. With the South Korean economy in the doldrums and South Korean public opinion less swayed by the spectacle and novelty of the second Trump-Kim meeting, Moon, as a de facto one-term president, cannot afford to see any flagging of the momentum behind the peace process.

His opinion poll ratings are falling and already the main opposition Liberty Korea Party has attacked him for being overly optimistic and naive. Older, conservative voters remain suspicious of the North, while progressive opinion is irritated by any appearance that South Korea’s interests are being marginalised and managed by its senior, and at times condescending US ally. Expect the Blue House to reiterate the importance of continuing dialogue, while looking for avenues to further North-South cooperation — a prospect undoubtedly set back by the latest developments.

Japan is likely to feel relieved that President Trump chose caution rather than impulsively offering the North major concessions and will be pleased that Trump stressed the importance of maintaining the trust of allies and the unity of the UN-sanctions process. Prime Minister Abe will also be reassured that Trump apparently raised the sensitive issue of Japanese abductees in the talks, although a risk-averse Japanese government remains keen to avoid any abrupt return to “fire and fury” given the real and present strategic threat that North Korea poses to Japan — hence Abe’s public statement of support for Trump’s focus on continuing negotiations and his own public willingness to meet face to face with Kim.

China will be disappointed by the failure of the talks and keen to ensure a disappointed North Korea does not revert to a more hard line posture (a possibility Kim hinted at in his 2019 New Year’s address if economic sanctions continued). But Beijing’s leverage with the North is limited and the Chinese are more likely to use persuasion rather than pressure to encourage both the Americans and the North Koreans to continue their dialogue.

Chinese policymakers (as others in the region) may worry about Trump’s ability to remain focused and engage strategically with North Korea given the US president’s domestic difficulties and his range of competing foreign policy challenges (Venezuela, Iran, and the India-Pakistan Kashmir conflict).

Kim reportedly sent his senior adviser, Kim Yong-chol to brief the Chinese leadership on the failure of the Hanoi talks, and Beijing will be hoping that close North Korea-China coordination continues, and that North Korea does not shift towards a more aggressive or unilateralist posture.

2) What domestic considerations does Kim face — and how has the summit impacted them?

John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

Kim comes away from Hanoi in a relatively stronger position than Trump, able to pocket the public relations coup of a second meeting with the world’s most powerful leader while also benefiting from being less time-pressed to reach an early deal.

A key policy choice for the North Koreans will be how to package the failure for opinion back home, whether to single out Trump for censure, blame others (such as John Bolton) in the president’s entourage for acting as spoilers, or — perhaps more plausibly — to criticize the Americans in general for an unwillingness to take the political risk of offering the anticipated deal of a peace declaration or the establishment of liaison missions between the two countries.

Less likely, in the short-run, is a pivot by Pyongyang towards a renewal of testing of missiles or nuclear weapons, although this risk cannot be discounted if progress on further talks and a third US-North Korea summit (now increasingly less likely) stalls.

For now, Pyongyang is presenting the Hanoi meeting to opinion at home as a success rather than a failure, with no hint of an abortive end to the bilateral discussions. For the international audience, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, has stressed — contrary to Trump’s and Pompeo’s claims — that North Korea was prepared to close both its plutonium and uranium nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in return for a partial, rather than a comprehensive relaxation of sanctions.

It is unclear whether this is an exercise in spin or an accurate reflection of the discussions between the two sides, but with North Korea making it clear that it will not change its negotiating position and sounding guarded about any future summits, the prospects of a smooth continuation of dialogue and constructive negotiation remain unclear.

3) Are North Korea’s nuclear capabilities likely to be meaningfully impacted by the outcome of the summit?

Leslie Vinjamuri, Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House

The summit has ended early and abruptly. The path forward is very uncertain, but it is beginning to look like Trump (and therefore the United States) is on a slow road to a new normal, one where North Korea is a full participant in international diplomacy, and its status as a de facto nuclear power and human rights abuser is accepted, reluctantly, though not recognised. If this is the new normal, the US should make a conscious decision about its nuclear diplomacy: Should a strategy that seeks to contain and also to deter North Korea’s nuclear abilities be accompanied by a diplomatic strategy of normalization and if so what should this look like?

True, no deal is better than a bad deal, but Trump has now accorded the North Korean leader the fanfare and international legitimacy that comes from not just one, but two summits. North Korea maintains its status as a nuclear power with more than 60 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. Proceeding with the Vietnam summit hasn’t proven to be better than no song and dance, that is, no second summit.

Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director, International Security Department, Chatham House

Prior to the summit, the landscape of possibilities for an outcome agreement included North Korea offering to shut down the reactors and enrichment capabilities at Yongbyon in exchange for partial relief from sanctions. While there are believed to be other facilities in North Korea that enrich uranium, Yongbyon is producing plutonium and uranium for weapons and its closure would have been both a big prize and significant step forward.

Nobody expected an easy ride in closing down Yongbyon. It would not have been the first time North Korea offered to shut it down — in fact they actually did so in 2007 as a result of the six-party talks. But monitoring and verifying the closure of Yongbyon has always been a step too far for North Korea and it was no surprise this was the fence at which negotiations stumbled, with US Secretary Pompeo and other US officials claiming North Korea was trying to negotiate only a partial closure in exchange for sanctions relief.

However, both summits have focused on North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities, and not on other weapons capabilities such as its large conventionally armed military. If it is true the US — in the person of John Bolton — threw the curve-ball of including chemical and biological weapons in the deal over sanctions, the sudden end to the summit might make sense as such a move would undo months of painstaking work by Stephen Biegun, President Trump’s special representative for North Korea. Beigun also seemed to be sidelined — not in the photographs, and sitting at the back of the room rather than at the table.

Kim Jong-un and his ministers and advisors may now be regrouping to consider a response to what is on offer from the US, but all the big nuclear issues remain unresolved. President Trump says Kim has undertaken not to test long-range missiles or nuclear warheads but — if the summit process has reached the end of the road — it is unlikely such promises will be kept. Unless the South Koreans can step in and persuade otherwise, a new cycle of threats from North Korea to bring the US back to the table and get sanctions lifted may well now be on the cards.

4) Is Trump’s strategy vis-à-vis North Korea consistent with his broader foreign policy?

Leslie Vinjamuri, Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House

By travelling to Hanoi, Trump has given Kim Jong-un a pass not once, but twice, on North Korea’s extraordinary and very well documented human rights abuses — among the worst, if not the worst, in the world. Trump’s devastating silence on North Korea’s human rights record is a setback from the international and, in the US context, bipartisan, pressure on North Korea that accompanied the 2014 release of the UN Commission of Inquiry report documenting the regimes human rights abuse. And when it comes to the regime’s shocking treatment of Otto Warmbier, the American student detained in North Korea who later died, Trump was far from silent — instead, he stated publicly that he believed Kim when he said he knew nothing about it. Sequencing denuclearization and human rights might have made sense in the context of a clear strategy, but the current impasse threatens both objectives.

No deal is also not a neutral or cost-free outcome. A more conventional process of pre-summit preparations could and should have revealed this impasse, or better, created some mechanism for inching forward. Instead, Kim is in a stronger place, and Trump has gone home with nothing to show and much to divert his attention. There is now a sense of stability that did not exist during Trump’s first year in office — but it is one predicated on a radically different scenario from what Trump has been trying to achieve.

5) How will the summit play to the US domestic audience?

Jacob Parakilas, Deputy Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House

Walking away was the right move for Trump under the circumstances, but it won’t help him at home.

After a brutal few months of political defeats, the president clearly saw the summit as an opportunity to turn the page and demonstrate progress on a seemingly intractable issue to the American people. His signature brand of personality politics was supposed to work with Kim Jong-un where more traditional presidents had failed.

But Trump’s strategy was fundamentally flawed: having undercut his own negotiating team with his declarations that ‘only I matter’, he gave the North Korean leader every incentive to stonewall the lower-level talks and go for broke in the top-level meeting. And, as it turned out, there were concessions the US was unwilling to make, making progress impossible.

There was always an upper limit on how much negotiations with North Korea would benefit Trump at home: beyond the American public’s general focus on domestic issues, negotiations with adversarial countries are generally unpopular, especially in the short term.

So trying to sell a failed summit will tax his considerable ability to cast every development in the most self-flattering light. Given that the president is returning to an ever-more-difficult domestic environment, he will no doubt try to spin the summit as an American victory — but his ability to control the news cycle seems to be diminishing, and as the summit demonstrates, hard realities will always catch up sooner or later.