When I watched the first handshake between the leader of the capitalist free world and the Stalinist supreme dictator of the most reclusive nation on the planet, I, alongside billions of other people, was astounded. 60 years since the Korean War ‘ended’ has seen the two nations engaged in tit-for-tat sanctions, fiery rhetoric and a blind stumble towards a nuclear war. At the most recent summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, it seemed their relationship’s differences only hinged on how well-done they liked their sirloin steaks.
The summits in Singapore and Vietnam have indeed provided us with many catchy soundbites, memes and photos, but what else has arisen out of these previously unthought-of of talks? Well, in short, nothing substantial. There is plenty of potential in continuing these talks, but also plenty of potential to go wrong too.
Let’s be clear, what Trump is offering is not a new concept. Presidents from Clinton to Trump have all sought to denuclearise this sensitive region. The first summit on Sentosa Island, Singapore was mostly a PR exercise. The only thing Trump came away with was a vague commitment from North Korea for complete denuclearisation on the peninsula. That headlined a whole list of other pledges, notably to advance “peace and prosperity” between nations. Trump asserted the summit as a “success, protecting American interests”, whilst Kim Jong Un proclaimed the meeting as a ‘fantasian’ “sci-fi-like” experience. So apart from a 12 second handshake, 38-minute private conversation, and an assurance to discuss issues of human rights ‘at a later date’ nothing substantial happened.
So, what about Hanoi, Vietnam? Kim Jong Un previously rejected what Trump referred to as the ‘Grand Bargain’ in which nuclear weapons were relinquished whilst the US would lift all sanctions on the hermit nation. At the second summit, this deal was again refused. Trump conceded the ability of the US and South Korea to conduct military drills, a move which alarmed South Korea and Trump’s foreign policy adviser, John Bolton. Ultimately, these talks achieved nothing. Kim Jong Un described the talks as productive but “there was not enough trust between our countries to give everything up at once”. The summit concluded with no agreement, with North Korea able to continue building its nuclear arsenal. If anything, President Trump demonstrated a crash-course in why past presidents have failed to secure any deal.
What next? As alluded to previously, there are trust issues. Trump has described Chairman Kim as “honest” and “direct”, going far enough to say that they “fell in love”, perhaps overlooking the fact that this man is a murderous tyrant who has slaughtered his own people and has built his regime on ideologically blinded lies. John Bolton argued that “[North Korea] were never going to be chit-chatted out of their nuclear weapons programmes”, whilst Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the chance of North Korea fulfilling its agreement as “virtually 0%”. Without trust in each other, future talks may as well be cancelled.
A third summit has not been committed to. Trump has described the last deal the pair agreed as ‘bad’ and not worth “rushing into”. The US ‘freeze for freeze’ agreement was rejected by the DPRK. Kim Jong Un felt suspicious of US efforts to de-nuclearise the peninsula. Further talks, therefore, cannot proceed with any degree of progress until North Korea realises the US’ sincerity, and vice-versa.
The potential of these summits can almost be predicted in a utopian light. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the summits was of ‘prosperity’, ‘peace’, ‘progress’ and ‘diplomacy’. But judging by the US-North Korean exchanges in Autumn 2017, things could only have got better. If an agreement is reached, I believe that not much will change. It is my view that North Korea will still possess nuclear weapons. It is ingrained in the North Korean mentality that security always means possession of nuclear weapons. Chairman Kim will not agree to a deal that will see the collapse of his regime.
The two leaders may have exhibited a more personable relationship, but nothing can predict what is really going in the Oval Office or the echoic halls of the Ryongsong Residence nestled within the last remnant of the Cold War.