CANBERRA – The cameras are gone, the lights have dimmed, the scribes have filed their reports and returned home and Hanoi has faded from host of a potentially life-and-death summit to being merely the capital of a booming Southeast Asian country. Attention will now turn fully to the simmering crisis in Kashmir.
The first thing to note is the dual symbolism of the venue. Reflecting the changed geopolitical dynamics, the summit process did not migrate to Europe but stayed in Asia. Most U.S. commentators noted how Vietnam comes with the symbolism of a country, once at war with the United States, now enjoying the fruits of prosperity. They encouraged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to improve relations with the United States and follow Vietnam’s model of economic development. In effect, Kim was told to abandon national and regime aspirations for security for a better lifestyle for his people.
This is historical amnesia. North Vietnam first achieved its national aspiration of defeating the U.S. and conquering the South, and only then gained lifestyle improvements. Economic development, conflict with China and healthy relations with the U.S. followed. The correct reading of history and its lessons is as pertinent for the U.S. as for North Korea.
The second takeaway is that if Singapore last year gave Kim legitimacy as the head of a de facto nuclear weapons state, Hanoi has normalized that status. Preparing for the summit, Donald Trump had successfully managed expectations downward. Gone were the boasts from Singapore about the nuclear threat from Pyongyang having ended. The emphasis this year was on a stable status quo. In the words of Robert Litwak, an American expert on nuclear issues and policy, the U.S. president has shifted the “transformational goal” of total denuclearization to the “transactional goal” of limiting Kim’s nuclear capability.
The third takeaway is the summit offered neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the two leaders had “very good and constructive meetings” and “discussed various ways to advance denuclearization.” Although “no agreement was reached at this time,” the two sides “look forward to meeting in the future.” At a news conference after the talks were abandoned without an agreement, Trump said the impasse arose over Kim’s demand for a lifting of sanctions in their entirety in return for a promise to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex. “Sometimes you have to walk and this was one of those times,” Trump said. Pyongyang disputes this account, saying it only asked for limited sanctions relief.
The summit timing was exquisite in its irony. For years some of us have been cautioning that the two big risks of nuclear war are in Asia, in the subcontinent and the Korean Peninsula. Rather than a deliberate decision to go to nuclear war, the more likely pathways are unintended drifts into nuclear war through an escalating spiral resulting from a terrorist attack in India by a Pakistan-based jihadi group, or miscommunications and provocations in Korea. Precisely when Trump and Kim met in Hanoi to try defusing the risk of nuclear war on the Korea Peninsula, tensions in Kashmir flared to their most serious level since 1971.
The Kashmir crisis underlines the logic of Trump’s Korea moves. Abandoning a demonstrably failed policy over a quarter century, of insistence on a total and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, is no big sacrifice. Engaging with Kim personally to establish a working relationship that can dispel misperceptions, build confidence and trust, deepen inter-Korean relations and in other ways greatly reduce the risks of a war with catastrophic consequences: now that is a big deal.
Moon Chung-in, special adviser to the South Korean president, remarks: “Those who insist on the futility of engaging and negotiating with the North commit the fallacy of self-deceiving prophecy.” The U.S. has walked back from the insistence that total, verified denuclearization is a precondition for improved ties and normalization. Instead it seems to have embraced the principle of simultaneous and parallel steps toward denuclearization and peaceful relations. In a significant speech at Stanford University on Jan. 31, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun began by acknowledging that in the past, “there were missed opportunities by both the United States and North Korea” to repair the poor state of relations.
The idea now, he said, is to change the North’s nuclear trajectory by changing the trajectory of U.S. policy from military confrontation and economic strangulation to military de-escalation and diplomatic engagement. For all his strategic illiteracy, perhaps Trump has a surer intuitive grasp of this underlying big-picture reality than most of the devotees of the Washington playbook of increasingly militarized responses to foreign crises. Communications channels are now active between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the U.S., at summit, high and working levels. This is no bad thing.
Almost all Western analysts have missed another potentially huge symbolic significance. Kim has been interested in the India model of de facto acceptance of nuclear-armed status outside the NPT. He called a halt after six nuclear tests. That is exactly the number that India conducted in 1974 (one) and 1998 (five).
The Kim dynasty’s negotiating playbook is to dismantle obsolete facilities and redundant capabilities, demand something valuable now and promise not to do something bad in the future. And also to tie up concessions and promises in definitional minutiae of exact meaning of agreed terminology and sequencing of steps.
For this reason Trump was right to walk away from the demand to lift all sanctions now in return for dismantling just one key nuclear facility. Perhaps Kim misjudged Trump’s eagerness to make a deal, any deal, in order to claim a victory to offset the worsening domestic situation for the president, particularly with his former lawyer’s testimony to Congress. Trump has not reached that point of desperation yet.
Meanwhile, current developments in Kashmir have a direct and reassuring relevance for U.S. allies in the Pacific. India’s air attacks deep inside Pakistan mark the first occasion in history of military strikes inside any nuclear-armed state. It is possible to retaliate against mischief-making by a rogue nuclear power. The U.S. should make it crystal clear that the promise of no military attacks to denuclearize North Korea, or to change its regime, is not unconditional, notwithstanding the Trump-Kim bromance. The U.S. security alliance with Seoul and Tokyo remains ironclad and any provocations by Pyongyang will be met with a robust response.
Ramesh Thakur, a professor emeritus in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.