Trump was wrong about North Korea as summit falters in Vietnam

Trump has long gambled that Pyongyang could be enticed to put economic benefits above strategic interests – he was wrong

Donald Trump and Kim-Jong-un
Donald Trump and Kim-Jong-un

The relationship between North Korea and the United States had looked as though it had improved considerably, at least on the surface, since the first summit held between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in June 2018 in Singapore. Trump and his allies touted the first summit as a success, although the joint communique in Singapore was scant on details, and offered little in the way of guidance on achieving denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula. The second summit, held last week in Vietnam, was meant to provide some impetus to negotiations, with President Trump hoping to strike a grand bargain with his North Korean counterpart. The fact that the summit ended abruptly without a joint statement is a stark reminder that no amount of wishful thinking will lead to a quick détente between Pyongyang and Washington.

For foreign policy observers, the first Summit was unusual given its heavy emphasis on style over substance. The warmth between Trump and Kim was a strong contrast with the fiery rhetoric traded between the two over the summer of 2017, which included Trump’s famous “fire and fury” remark. The communique, being the document that outlines the joint agreement on what was discussed and to plot a way forward, was short on details and offered few indications that the US or North Korea were really on the same page. One of the key terms in the joint statement was that the “DPRK commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Denuclearisation has been a tricky term for American and North Korean negotiators for years – whereas the US considers denuclearisation to be the dismantling of the North’s nuclear programme, the North views it to include the removal of all US troops from the peninsula and the end of the nuclear umbrella guarantee for South Korea. With the two sides having such a fundamentally different understanding of the key term which is the foundation upon which these talks are built, any progress was bound to be limited, or in this case, clouded by lofty rhetoric.

When Trump and Kim met in Vietnam, it was imperative for them to produce not only a vision of a way forward – but to provide a concrete framework under which negotiations could continue in a meaningful manner. This was not achieved, and this was due to President Trump’s overestimation of his ability as a dealmaker. The 45th President, using his experience as a businessman, believed that North Korea could be convinced to abandon their nuclear programme in exchange for the promise of  economic benefits. This line of thinking ignores North Korea’s strategic interest to ensure the continuity of the Kim regime as being its primary driver. Kim Jong Un is unlikely to give up his country’s nuclear programme for as long as he feels that the United States may pose even a minimal threat to his leadership – not to mention that this same programme has spanned nearly forty years, three leadership changes in Pyongyang, and countless billions of dollars that it could have otherwise used towards feeding its people and economic development.  From their perspective, to give up something they have invested so heavily in on the basis of some potential benefits will not be enough for them to change course, certainly not as a result of a couple of summit meetings.

Where does the process go from here? As the clock ticks closer to the 2020 US Presidential elections, the negotiations will get more exposure for their political value to Trump’s re-election campaign, putting more pressure on negotiators from the higher-ups to obtain some meaningful results. Any small success will be amplified in the media. But should negotiations break down, Trump will be more likely to become belligerent and start a war of words with his North Korean counterpart.

North Korea will also be considering their stance as the 2020 election draws nearer. If they feel that Trump may be removed from office due to impropriety, or will fail to be re-elected, they would be likely to slow walk any negotiations, whilst covertly expediting elements of their nuclear programme. They may reason that if Trump will not be there after the new Presidential term of January 2021, there is little reason to make an effort in dealing with him. However, this is a high-stakes gamble, because if it fails, they would face a President Trump that does not take well to what he considers to be personal slights.

What is the end result of the Vietnam Summit? The best case scenario is this will merely register as a minor blip in an otherwise longer process towards better relations between the US & North Korea. At worst, it may be the start of a serious reversal in negotiations which leads once again to the type of tensions that flared up in the summer of 2017. With the US domestic political temperatures increasing, and having lost control of the House of Representatives, Trump will be under pressure to deliver something overseas, and he may see a nuclear deal with Kim Jong Un as his conduit to success. This would provide him with a platform on which to build his 2020 re-election campaign.

But Trump remains blinded to the fact that countries do not necessarily equate economic development with their strategic interests. For some, they are mutually exclusive. This may seem baffling to the mind of a Westerner, where nearly thirty years since the end of the Cold War has seen countries place economic growth above all other political, and geopolitical considerations. North Korea has not, and will not place economic prosperity above regime survival. Concessions will need to be made on both sides against a mutually agreed timetable. President Trump must balance what he is willing to give up to achieve a nuclear deal with North Korea’s desire to retain a degree of deterrent against the US. Much will depend on Trump’s political calculations and what he can gain for political capital back home. Both sides will be more careful in the weeks and months ahead due to the failure of the last Summit – but the pressure will be on Trump, not Kim, to deliver.

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