Sandip Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.
The Hanoi Summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea on 27 and 28 February 2019 ended without any deal or joint declaration. This is unfortunate given that the US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had managed to at least bring out a joint declaration during their Singapore summit in June 2018. Although Trump left Hanoi after making many positive statements about Kim Jong-un and North Korea, North Korean official statement, which was released on late night of 28 February was sharper.
While Donald Trump’s press conference that was held in the immediate aftermath of the summit, attempted to convey that everything is not lost and there is still hope, North Korean statement was more accusatory and uncompromising. According to Trump, the US wanted North Korea ‘to do more’ but North Korea ‘was unprepared to do that’. In his interpretation of the North Korean position, Trump shared that North Korea wanted full reversal of the sanctions, which the US considered premature. However, he was still ‘optimistic’ and added that the US and North Korean visions were ‘a lot closer than it was a year back’. He announced the two countries would keep their relationship and especially since Kim Jong-un had assured him that regardless of anything, North Korea would not have rocket and nuclear tests. For Trump, the time was not appropriate for signing a deal currently, though he expressed that signing of a ‘deal is a process and it’s moving along’.
North Korea’s initial statement said that it had asked for only partial lifting of sanctions (only five which were brought in 2016 and 2017 out of overall 11 sanctions), which contradicted with the US claim that North Korea asked for the removal of all sanctions. Actually, North Korea had demanded for a step-by-step approach given the limited trust between the two countries and for the same reason had not put out its full list of demands at the Hanoi summit. North Korea considers removal of all sanctions and non-aggression guarantee as encompassing its full set of demands to the US. Hence, it stated that that even if only partial concession would have been agreed by the US, it was ready to ‘permanently and completely dismantle all of the nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area… in the presence of US experts’. It further agreed to commit to ‘permanent halt of nuclear testing and long-range rocket launch testing’ in return for the partial lifting of sanctions.
The US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun had stated in a conference on 11 March 2019 that the US was ‘not going to do (North Korea’s) denuclearization incrementally’. According to him, North Korea offered to eliminate part of its nuclear programme and in exchange asked for the lifting of ‘basically all’ of the international sanctions and it was not possible for the US to accept such a deal. North Korean version says that when the US demanded to ‘take one more step beside(s) the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, it realized that the ‘US was not ready to accept our (its) proposal’.
A careful reading of various statements of the US and North Korea suggests that both the parties were asking for more and ready to give less to each other. Moreover, the US considered that even partial lifting of the sanctions might dilute the pressure from North Korea and thus, until full denuclearization of North Korea is not on the table, the easing of sanctions could be a bad strategy. Thus, the US was ready to compensate North Korea’s Yongbyon plus alpha offer by establishing liaison offices in each other’s capitals and having a peace declaration but not to ease sanctions.
For North Korea, without lifting some sanctions, all other American officers are insignificant and useless at this point. North Korea felt that at ‘the existing level of trust between the US and North Korea, there could not be a better agreement proposal’ which is incremental in nature.
Overall, it seems that there is some serious gap between the US and North Korea’s approach towards the denuclearization issue and in the last two weeks, loose statements from both the sides may have widened the gap further. Both the countries need to review their approaches and modify them to accommodate each other’s concerns, otherwise, the prophecy of North Korea might become true in which it said that ‘opportunity like Hanoi Summit might be difficult to come again in future’.