Will the "Post-Hanoi" Era Mark A New Phase for US-North Korean Relations?

Will the "Post-Hanoi" Era Mark A New Phase for US-North Korean Relations?

by Chanyang Seo

The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi failed to achieve a new agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea. While the U.S. called for Pyongyang’s dismantlement of all nuclear capabilities including missiles and nuclear programs, North Korea demanded that the U.S. lift sanctions in exchange for only access to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the crux of previous nuclear negotiations. The talks may have failed; however, the failure does not mean U.S-North Korea relations have entered a protracted stalemate.

On the surface, U.S.-North Korean relations have dramatically improved since 2018, bolstered by South Korea’s diplomatic outreach to both parties. 2018 was a significant leap forward, as the vulnerable security situation in the Korean peninsula became relatively stable following three inter-Korean summits and an unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit. For his part, Kim Jong Un has consistently signaled his commitment toward “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” at these bilateral meetings with both Trump and Moon

Kim and Moon first met in April 2018 the border town called Panmunjom and signed the Panmunjom Declaration. North Korea committed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which it later defined as the dislodgement of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence from South Korea and the region. Kim and Moon met again in May once Trump suddenly called off the Singapore summit with Kim scheduled for June. In September Moon and Kim signed the Pyongyang Declaration, under which Kim agreed permanently to dismantle his nuclear facilities including the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for unspecified reciprocal measures by the U.S. In Singapore in June, Kim and Trump declared a commitment to peacebuilding, denuclearization, and reconfirmed the Panmunjom Declaration.

Despite diplomatic progress, the gulf of differences on the basic meaning of and steps for achieving the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” came to the fore in Hanoi. Problems hitherto ignored needed to be addressed. First, North Korea’s stated willingness to denuclearize had lost credibility because of continuing nuclear activities detected. In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affirmed that North Korea had continued its nuclear development at Yongbyon. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano further urged North Korea to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and the IAEA Board which demanded that North Korea refrain from nuclear weapons development. 

Second, there remains no clear agreement on “denuclearization” between the U.S. and North Korea. The Trump administration has insisted on Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID)—a phrase coined in the George W. Bush administration. However, there has been no further discussion on defining the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. While Pyongyang takes the position that opening up the Yongbyon complex is sufficient to win relief from most sanctions, the U.S. seeks access to and dismantlement of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear program.

Further complicating the picture is that South Korea and the U.S. have taken different approaches. While the Trump administration has maintained that no sanctions will be lifted unless North Korea dismantles its nuclear program, the Moon administration has attempted to renew inter-Korean economic cooperation and by lifting sanctions on North Korea. Seoul has sought rapprochement with North Korea, fostering cultural exchanges such as K-pop performances in Pyongyang and the North Korean art troop’s performance in Gangneung, South Korea, and forming a joint Olympic team between two Koreas.

The Moon Administration has sought North Korea’s denuclearization with the aim of protecting the security and stability in the Korean peninsula and eventually bringing about unification. Peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula has been a major goal for South Korea since 1948, when Korea was divided into two. However, North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development have damaged South-North relations significantly.

China has not been an active player in recent discussions on North Korean denuclearization. But China is an official ally of North Korea, and the two countries have maintained strong diplomatic and economic ties since the early years of the post-1945 period, when Kim Il Sung sent tens of thousands of Korean troops to fight alongside the Chinese Communist Party forces in the Chinese Civil War. During the Korean War, China sent millions of troops to aid North Korea. In the wake of the strengthened UN sanctions against North Korea since 2016, China has remained North Korea’s largest trade partner while many others reduced or halted their trade with the country. Nearly 60% of North Korea’s trade continues to be with China. The special bilateral relations have also been confirmed by four summit meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in less than a year, from March 2018 to January 2019.

The future of denuclearizing North Korea is not bright. U.S.-North Korea relations following the Hanoi summit are not entirely hopeless, but immense hurdles remain.  Both North Korea and the U.S. need to agree on the definition of the complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. and South Korea also must strengthen their strategic partnership and coordinate policy. If the partnership between the U.S. and South Korea is weakened due to their different approaches toward North Korea, the future of the talks will only favor North Korea, which is skilled at driving wedges between other parties.

The U.S. also needs to build up strategic relations with China. The ongoing U.S-China trade war dampens China’s willingness to support the U. S’s effort to denuclearize North Korea. The path to peace and security on the Korean peninsula should continue by overcoming these obstacles and resuming the U.S.-North Korean bilateral dialogue even, or all the more, as North Korea continues to advance its nuclear capabilities and resorts to periodic threats. The stakes are simply too big to leave to chance.


Image: President Trump’s Trip to Vietnam

Courtesy of The White House / Flickr


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Chanyang is a first-year student under The Fletcher School’s Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) program, where she concentrates in international security and peacebuilding in the Korean Peninsula and East Asia. She is a part of a dual-degree program with University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Serving as a co-leader of the Fletcher North Korea Working Group, she has planned and organized various events on North Korea’s nuclear power, geopolitical security in the East Asia region, and North Korean human security issues. 

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