MACK WILLIAMS : The Hanoi Summit and aftermath – a South Korean perspective

Mar 21, 2019

Special Advisor to President Moon assesses the Hanoi Summit as not a failure but a setback. China and the ROK continue to agree the need for a US:DPRK agreed roadmap to move past the present stalemate towards the longer term common objective of the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. At the same time the ROK has stepped up its working level contacts with the US. Prior to Hanoi, the ROK Opposition worked hard in Washington to urge Congress, the military security lobby and thinktanks to pressure President Trump to maintain a hardline approach in his negotiations with Kim Jong-un.

In an interesting initiative, Professor Chung-In Moon (Special Advisor for Foreign Affairs and National Security to President Moon) addressed a seminar in Sydney yesterday organised by the Australian Chapter of the National Unification Advisory Council on the Hanoi Summit and its aftermath. He did not travel to Canberra. The primary purpose appears to have been the ROK Government’s concern to ensure that the Australian public, especially the active Korean community, understand better its current policy on North Korea amid the flurry of international media commentary and the ROK Opposition’s efforts to woo the Korean diaspora. Chung is a world recognised expert on North Korea having been the only Korean on either side to have attended all ROK:DPRK summits and who was actively involved in working level discussions preparing for Hanoi.

Chung’s principal theme was that the size and complexity of the issues for discussion simply could not be resolved in the Hanoi Summit – the gap was too wide despite some encouraging preliminary working level discussions. One had to be realistic that many more meetings would likely be required before a deal could be finalised. It was not possible for the two parties to agree on the US demand for complete irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation before any of the DPRK’s counterdemands could be addressed. Just before Hanoi, the chief US negotiator (Biegun) had spoken encouragingly about the need for the US to change its tactics and move down the path of phased negotiations. Subsequently Secretary of State Pompeo had endorsed this view. John Bolton’s surprise attendance in Hanoi (it had been reported that he had been obliged to stay in Washington for a few days to sort out Venezuela) obviously toughened up Trump’s position and expanded it further to include biological weapons. It was also clear that Trump was very preoccupied with the simultaneous congressional appearance of Micheal Cohen.

Kim probably had thought that his offer on the Yongbyon nuclear facilities was an important concession and worthy of recognition by the US. Hardliners in the US, encouraged by conservatives in the ROK and possibly Japanese Prime Minister Abe, countered with the view that the Yongbyon offer was not all that great as it probably only constituted as low as 20% of the DPRK’s nuclear capability with much more dispersed around the country. Chung said that two senior US scientists with actual experience in Yongbyon and Los Alamos considered that figure should be closer to 80%, the closure and destruction of which should be a very significant target in its own right. He also mentioned the credible reporting of other working on missile sites but hoped that the DPRK would tread very carefully along that track which would obviously risk further damaging the hopes of negotiation.

Chung noted, in their post-Hanoi comments, both sides had avoided any personal criticism of their leaders. Hopefully this could confirm that there was genuinely some warmth in their personal relationship as this could provide the basis for continuing negotiations. The dust had not yet settled and only time would tell. That was the basis for his assessment that Hanoi had not been a failure but a setback. Trump had been able to return to his domestic power base in the US as having firmly stood his ground while Kim seems also not to have lost face within his cohorts in the DPRK. The key factor now was to avoid letting this stalemate drift back into more confrontational territory.

Though facing some growing criticism from ROK conservatives, Moon was determined to do what he could to facilitate discussion between the US and the DPRK while also carefully building linkages with the DPRK. A Kim visit to the ROK was not likely soon but maybe they could meet again later in Panmunjom. Moon would also continue to press for some “intra Korean exemption” from the sanctions on the DPRK to allow the linkages to grow. When asked how a potential change of the ROK Presidency at the next elections might affect the inter-Korean process, Chung thought it would be very little despite all the current debate in the ROK. There were few alternatives for the ROK.

In response to other questions, Chung:

· Commented that the situation in North Korea had witnessed some significant change in recent years and that in Pyongyang there still was little visible impact from sanctions. The shelves on the new “supermarkets” near some residential areas were now filled with cans etc labelled as manufactured in the DPRK where as earlier they had all been Chinese. Perhaps the most obvious was that during the days of Kim’s grandfather and father uniformed military were everywhere to be seen on the streets of Pyongyang or in the audiences of concerts etc. On his last visit he had seen none. While not denying the Kims’ history Chung believed that Kim Jong-un was serious about placing economic development at the top of his priority list.

· This was borne out by the way Kim was so keen to promote foreign investment. Chung had recently accompanied very senior Samsung, LG, Hyundai and several other chaebol representatives to the DPRK. They had been feted by Kim and his team. Some of the latter had pressed Chung to help the DPRK get the chaebols to invest in the DPRK. He had responded that the denuclearisation issue was currently a massive hurdle – none of the chaebols would be prepared to risk their huge US markets by such action until there was significant movement.

Mack Williams is a former Ambassador to the ROK

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