The Trump-Kim Hanoi Summit: What Really Happened?
President Trump, during his State of the Union before Congress on February 5, announced the second summit with Kim Jung-un on February 27 and 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam. During the speech, Trump argued that his administration staved off a great war with a strategy of bold diplomatic action, teeing up the Hanoi Summit to be a continuation of his bold diplomacy. Despite the excitement surrounding the summit, Trump left Hanoi without a signed deal and only spoken agreements to continue the search for a diplomatic solution. In short, the summit did little to advance any solution on the denuclearization of North Korea.
This post will examine the events and outcomes of the summit, looking to determine the implications on the America-North Korea relationship. The first section will show how differing desires coming into the summit made reaching any deal a tall order. Second, I will examine what happened during the summit, and, in the final section, connect the summit into the broader scope of North Korean denuclearization, suggesting possible paths forward in the aftermath of the summit.
For President Trump, the Hanoi Summit centered on security and denuclearization. In a White House Business Session, Trump said, “we want denuclearization,” hinting at possible economic relief is if North Korea acquiesced to some concessions on its nuclear program. Trump , throughout his diplomatic outreach, has argued that North Korea could “rapidly become an economic powerhouse” once it complied with denuclearization. Mike Pompeo reiterated these remarks, tweeting from Hanoi before summit on the necessity to build on the promises of complete denuclearization, transformed ties, and lasting peace from the Singapore Summit.
Since taking over North Korea, Kim Jung-un has focused on developing nuclear weapons and the North Korean economy—the two pillars of his byongjin policy. In his 2018 New Year’s Speech, Kim declared the completion of his nuclear arsenal. Since that declaration, North Korea’s grand strategy has shifted to focus on economic recovery. Kim’s diplomatic outreach over the last year, as Ruediger Frank wrote on 38North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea, “shows that Kim will try to soften international and bilateral sanctions and acquire access to external markets and finance in the interest of economic development and growth.” A policy focused on diplomacy also works to soften Kim’s image as a leader. For Kim, diplomacy is a way to legitimize North Korea as a rational nuclear actor on the international stage while gaining economic concessions to fulfill his byongjin policy.
Both leaders traveled to Vietnam with vastly different goals. Kim came to Hanoi seeking strong economic assurance and political legitimization on the world stage while the Trump administration focused on securing strong denuclearization pledges. In the end, differing goals for the summit caused a diplomatic breakdown, forcing the two leaders to abandon the summit without a formal agreement.
On Day 1 in Hanoi the two leaders sought to demonstrate their close relationship. The two leaders held a one-on-one meeting with only translators present. One-on-one diplomacy, however, came with great risk as Kim may have pushed for unilateral approval of a grand bargain which heavily favored North Korea. After their private meeting, the two leaders held a “social dinner” with high level aides present. Before the dinner, Trump and Kim showed their “very special relationship” to the press and expressed intent to build on the first day with substantive discussion on day 2.
The second day of the summit started off on high note. Discussions included the opening of liaison offices to facilitate continued diplomatic engagement between North Korea and The United States by setting up crucial infrastructure to avoid miscalculation. Kim Jung-un called the idea “something that we could welcome,” and Trump said the proposal was simply a “great thing.” Despite a strong opening, a planned working lunch and signing ceremony were cancelled as the two leaders failed to reach an agreement. The summit ended hours earlier than planned.
The transition from progress to breakdown of the summit centered around one contentious issue: sanctions relief. In his post summit press conference, President Trump accused Kim Jung-un of asking for too much in a deal; according to Trump, Kim offered partial denuclearization for full sanctions relief. Trump expressed discontent with the deal, saying the proposal “leaves nuclear weapons and war heads and weapons systems” still on the table. In short, the proposed agreement did not the secure complete denuclearization Trump wanted, forcing the president to walk away.
North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho, in a rare late-night press conference, rebuked Trump’s description of the proposal. According to Ri, North Korea asked for partial sanctions relief, focused on the lifting of five specific sanctions that were imposed between 2016 and 2017. In exchange for lifting these sanctions, North Korea promised to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear production facility in the presence of U.S. experts and inspectors. Through dueling press conferences, the two leaders worked to shape the narrative in their favor.
The Broader Context and Moving Forward
Despite placing blame on each other for the breakdown of the talks, Trump and Kim seem to have kept their blooming bromance alight. In his press conference, President Trump said, “I think our relationship is very strong,” and called Kim Jung-un “quite a guy and quite a character.” North Korean media shared their enthusiasm. In a post summit report, The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s main news service, reported that the two leaders shared a candid discussion on the future of America-North Korean relations, closing with a promise of future meeting to expand on the success of the Singapore and Hanoi summits. Despite maintaining a strong relationship, there have been no future meetings scheduled.
Future diplomatic engagement must confront strong enmity on sanctions relief in order to produce an effective and implementable deal. To avoid future breakdowns, Trump should embrace a new strategy. By utilizing positive security and economic sanctions, Trump can give some promise of economic growth without completely eliminating the sanctions currently in place. Positive sanctions can be used as rewards in a conditional and reciprocal denuclearization agreement.
The diplomatic breakdown in Hanoi is a strong indication of just how far away a deal is. As the two leaders work out a plan for building on Hanoi, it is imperative for them to draft realistic options for the conditional, reciprocal, incremental denuclearization of North Korea. A plan based on reciprocal actions can bridge the enmity on sanctions relief by offering North Korea economic incentives to gradually denuclearize. With diplomacy likely to continue on the Korean peninsula, both leaders must work to avoid diplomatic failures like Hanoi in the future.