The Trump-Kim summit began and ended in Hanoi on 28 February with Donald Trump peremptorily terminating his discussions with Kim Jong-un. According to media reports, Trump claims Kim demanded the lifting of all US-imposed sanctions in exchange for closing the nuclear complex at Yongpyon. Kim claims he only asked for a partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for closing Yongpyon. Speculation about all this is running hot among informed commentators.
However, a well-informed senior Asian diplomatic source in Canberra has added another reason for the Summit’s breakdown: that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, persuaded Trump to add another demand, without notice, that led to North Korean refusal and a premature end to the summit even before negotiations had begun.
The Asian diplomat recalled that John Bolton had been scheduled to visit Canberra at the end of February. But the visit was cancelled when he suddenly went to Hanoi instead, whether at Trump’s directive or on his own initiative being unclear. The diplomat’s understanding is that Bolton suggested to Trump that as well as demanding a complete inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems, Trump should also request details of the country’s chemical and biological arsenal, a demand Kim found unexpected, and for which he was unprepared, and refused. Trump then broke off the meeting before substantive negotiations had even begun.
The reliability of the diplomatic source is not in question, but the story is justifiably open to considerable speculation. Is it true? Was it the brainchild of Bolton? Did he deliberately introduce the new demand into Trump’s list knowing that Kim would refuse, thus ending further discussions?
The fact is that Kim Jong-un’s offer to close Yongbyon in the presence of United States technical inspectors was a remarkably generous offer, if it encompassed both the reactor that produced plutonium, the complex that converted uranium oxide into gaseous uranium hexafluoride, and the centrifuges that enriched the gas in the isotope uranium 235. It very much resonates with the 1994 Framework Arrangements negotiated by Jimmy Carter on behalf of President Clinton in which US inspectors would take part in extracting and safely storing plutonium from North Korea’s sole reactor at the time.
Add to this latest offer the North Korean claim that Kim did not seek the immediate abolition of all US sanctions, but only a partial and selective list. An impartial observer would be inclined to see the package as practically negotiable, and more importantly, as a fair deal consonant with the kind of phased step-by-step negotiations Trump himself had been forecasting before the Summit as both desirable and practical.
Since Trump walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action holding Iran to a commitment not to develop nuclear weapons, and his subsequent abandonment of the INF, Kim would have cause to wonder whether the American President’s word can be trusted on any undertaking he makes. Nevertheless, the Hanoi Summit will probably be recorded as a tragic missed opportunity to begin the complex process of meaningful and intricate negotiations to reduce nuclear tensions in North Asia. We can only hope that officials on both sides will find a better way through the impasse.
Richard Broinowski, former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam and South Korea.