US-North Korea negotiations: where now?

What is surprising is not so much that Donald Trump’s Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un fizzled, it is that expectations of quick progress, even a breakthrough, were not better managed.

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

No doubt Trump himself believed his personality and negotiating skills could facilitate an end to an unresolved conflict on the Korean Peninsula, including its denuclearisation.

"Kim Jong-Un arrived in Hanoi with the unreasonable expectation that… he could persuade Donald Trump to lift sanctions.”

However, any study of the tortured history of negotiations with Pyongyang should have reminded the American side that no matter what sort of chemistry might exist between respective leaders, self- interest and, in the case of North Korea, self-preservation, will dictate future developments.

The question now becomes what next? And what are implications for the delicate involvement of China in efforts to bring North Korea into the mainstream?

Moot point

What should be noted is over the past year Beijing and Pyongyang have drawn closer. Kim has been rewarded with no fewer than four summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in what is clearly a coordinated effort to deal with US pressures.

In all of this, China’s complex negotiations with the United States on a new trade deal that would seek to address a host of American trade concerns cannot be detached from Beijing’s important role in seeking to ensure North Korea does not revert to its previous recalcitrant state.

Post-Hanoi, what can be read into intelligence reports that Pyongyang is restoring operations at its long rang rocket launch site - these were partially dismantled last year as part of a down-payment on its negotiations - is moot.

But what is clear is North Korea is not allowing a hiatus in its engagement with America to disable its missile testing capabilities. Restoration of what are described by a North Korea-friendly website as “normal operational status’’ to its Sohae test site is obviously designed to convey the message that missile testing could be resumed at short notice.

Come and gone

What remains the essential question is whether negotiations will follow a similar frustrating trajectory to those dating back to the visit to North Korea in June, 1994 by then President Jimmy Carter in which he sat down with Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the present leader.

That meeting followed North Korea’s announcement it was suspending its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its seven declared nuclear sites.

Kim Il-Sung died just weeks after the Carter visit to be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, father of the present ruler.

Since 1994, negotiations under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have followed a roller coaster in which freezes on the construction of nuclear reactors, and missile testing have come and gone.

Extraordinary diplomatic efforts have been expended to bring about an end to a state of war on the Korean Peninsula - and a process of denuclearisation - in which the whole of North Asia, including Japan, is vulnerable to a nuclear meltdown.

If we fast forward to today, it is now clear Kim Jong-Un arrived in Hanoi with the unreasonable expectation that, in return for limited concessions on dismantling his country’s nuclear facilities, he could persuade Donald Trump to lift sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Trump walked, insisting North Korea give up all nuclear weapons and destroy its chemical and biological stockpiles before it was entitled to sanctions relief.

Meanwhile China has been arguing for a gradual economic opening that would involve a staged disarmament by North Korea in exchange for an easing of sanctions. Or, as the Chinese put it, “action for action’’.

This places a premium on the successful conclusion of the US-China trade talks that have entered a difficult final stage in which the two sides are seeking an agreement that would include built-in safeguards against backsliding on any deal.

From the American perspective this is necessary because of legitimate concerns Beijing’s regard for the trading rules of the world is, at best, fungible, and, at worst, to be disregarded altogether.

For its part, China is demanding it be accorded “fair and equal’’ treatment, in the words of its chief negotiator Wang Shouwen, vice minister for international trade negotiations.


A March 1 2019 deadline has come and gone for completion of negotiations.

Given the stakes involved, the US-China trade negotiations, against a backdrop of a “fizzle’’ in the US-North Korea denuclearisation talks, are assuming considerable importance beyond a trade agreement itself.

A slowing Chinese economy, signs the US economy may be peaking and concerns about global growth, more generally, are weighing in calculations.

Historically, Hanoi 2019 recalls in some ways Camp David 2000.

What made Donald Trump believe he could clear - in a single bound - obstacles to a deal is a mystery, possibly explained by hubris, but it is clear preparations before the two leaders met were inadequate.

This mirrors a similar lack of preparation in 2000 when Bill Clinton, then in the last year of a presidency, tainted by the Monica Lewinsky affair, believed he could use his charm to bring about an end to one of the most intractable conflicts of the modern era.

Whimper not a bang

The world should hope the abrupt end to the Trump-Kim will not result in a similarly lengthy standoff.

Adding to concerns about a continuing hiatus on the Korean Peninsula are signs that a global nuclear safety net is fraying. The US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty (INF), cornerstone of an end to the Cold War, is a worrying development.

Russia has responded by saying it will create a new generation of land-based missiles. This is adding to strains in the NATO alliance.

Then there are tensions over Kashmir where nuclear-capable India has conducted conventional airstrikes across its frontier with nuclear-capable Pakistan in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Kashmir.

A falling away of American global arms control leadership more generally is concerning.

What is slightly encouraging about the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit is it ended not with a bang but a whimper, suggesting further negotiations might yield progress to build on that already achieved in which Kim Jong-un had agreed to a partial shut-down of one of his nuclear facilities.

Market reaction to the failure of the two sides to make meaningful progress, including an anticipated signing of a joint statement and an end to the state of war on the Korean peninsula, was muted. Markets wobbled momentarily but were not marked down.

Officials will continue their interactions but no timeframe, even notionally, has been set for a third Trump-Kim summit following on from Hanoi and the first in Singapore last year.

In the meantime, sanctions will remain in place, although North Korea appears to have become relatively adept at managing its economic isolation. It is continuing to sell arms in Africa and the Middle East, including an ever-present fear it remains in the market to transfer nuclear technology - or is continuing to do so.

China and Russia have been less than assiduous in enforcing a United Nations-sanctioned sanctions regime, including the curtailment of oil shipments. In other words, economic pressures on the regime appear to be manageable, and thus incentives to make the sort of concessions that would satisfy an American president were not overwhelming.


What is surprising is that both sides, even after multiple rounds of discussions, failed to appreciate what each was offering and the chasm between them.

Perhaps even Kim himself mistakenly believed Trump wanted a deal so badly he would settle for what was a completely inadequate offer that would have left the core of North Korea’s nuclear program intact.

This was not just a bad deal, it was an unacceptable deal that obliged Trump to walk away, notwithstanding his belief that he could make the sort of deal that would override decades of mistrust.

Trump was prepared to offer a “peace declaration’’ that would have marked a symbolic end to the Korean conflict of 1950-53 and an exchange of liaison offices in respective capitals – quasi diplomatic recognition -- in return for meaningful concessions from Pyongyang. These did not materialise.

North Korea’s focus was on a lifting of sanctions. This appears to have been its main preoccupation.

Jung H. Pak of the Brookings Institution sums up the issue: “The removal of these sanctions would have amounted to billions of dollars of sanctions relief, revenue that could be funneled back into the proscribed programs that we are trying to stop.

“Given the metastasis of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the covert facilities, and the range of ballistic missiles, offering Yongbyon for the removal of these most effective sanctions, on its face, was a grossly disproportionate trade.’’

The question then becomes whether the Hanoi “fizzle’’ will prove not simply to be a lost opportunity in the long run, but in the end will have been counter-productive.

“We should not have had a second summit at all, given the gaping hole between US and North Korean expectations,’’ writes Jung of Brookings. “Both leaders, suffering from hubris and overconfidence that the sheer force of their charisma and budding friendship could get themselves to a good deal, even though they were briefed by their working-level negotiators about the limited parameters of what the other side was asking and willing to give.”

Jung dismissed Hanoi as a “vanity summit” without substance. North Korea appears to have emerged from the summit failure relatively unscathed, even rewarded, with Trump cancelling annual US-South Korea military exercises viewed by Pyongyang as invasion rehearsals.

Should this be regarded as a down-payment by the US on the next phase of negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting solution to tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

From an Australian perspective with the bulk of its seaborne trade dependent on stability in North Asia we should hope so.

Tony Walker is a bluenotes contributor, former Financial Times correspondent in China and former Australian Financial Review political editor.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

11 Oct 2018

New world order: stuck in the middle with Trump

Tony Walker | Author and Political Analyst

The US-China trade war will not be good for Australia – particularly the agribusiness sector.

09 Jul 2018

New world order: on the precipice of a trade war

Tony Walker | Author and Political Analyst

It’s undeniable growth will be affected by any disruption to global trade.