Hanoi Summit: Limitation of ‘All for None’ Approach

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.

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’.

From Hurling Abuses to Summit Diplomacy: What Factors are Driving Kim Jong-un?

Divya Tyagi, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

Kim Jong-un’s new year speech (saehae yeonseol) kick-started an accelerated pace of political shifts in the Korean Peninsula. With the emphasis on creating a ‘peaceful environment’ on the Peninsula, Kim surprised the world with his turnabout from hurling abuses to proposing peace talks. But the question arises, why has he changed his stance and what could be the possible reason behind this sudden shift in Kim’s approach.

If we take lessons from history then, the Panmunjom declaration might just be yet another disappointment. The summit of 27 April 2018 was the third Inter-Korean summit after the Korean war. During the summit of 2000, images of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il (father of Kim Jong-un) shaking hands and clinking champagne glasses covered the news, as the two leaders signed a “broad agreement to work toward peace and reunification.”[1] The second summit came in 2007 after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. Similarly, in hopes of finding a negotiated solution regarding North Korea’s pulling out of Non-Proliferation Treaty (2003), six-party negotiations were initiated which again came to a stalemate after Pyongyang pulled out in 2009. So, there is a sense of deja-vu as North-Korea once again shows the willingness to come to the negotiating table with the concerned parties. The script of the present scenario can be seen as a repetition of the past but, the motive behind the benevolent approach of Kim can be speculated to have manifold reasons.

Breathing Space from the Strangulating Sanctions

Economic sanctions are not a rarity for North Korea after it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. These sanctions were tightened in 2017 and with it’s all weather ally, China, actively supporting this time, compelled Kim Jong-un to embark on his 2018 ‘charm offensive’. There have been glimpses in the new year’s speech of Kim and the 2018 Parliamentary budget report indicating the damage the sanctions have made on the country’s economy. The North Korean supreme leader in his new year’s speech alluded that sanctions had affected the country’s economy. Likewise, the Premier of North Korea, Pak Pong Ju’s speech during the 6th session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on 11 April 2018 mentioned ‘externally imposed obstacles’ twice, referring to “unprecedented massive challenges” and “vicious sanctions and pressure manoeuvres.” Both leaders acknowledged that economic sanctions were strangulating the North Korean economy, and that might have compelled Kim to rethink his approach, towards its southern neighbour in particular.

Victory on the Nuclear Front

Five years after announcing his Byungjin Policy in 2013, Kim Jong-un has declared North Korea as a nuclear state. Byungjin policy is his signature national strategy and, the successor to his father’s Songun policy (1994). Under Byungjin, Kim pledged to the success of North Korea’s parallel pursuit of a nuclear deterrence and economic development. Now that he claims the successful completion of making North Korea a nuclear state, shifting his focus to economic development seems the only logical choice. The transition of North Korea into a de facto nuclear state has also increased the confidence of Kim in global power standing. The idea of negotiating on an equal footing because of the nuclear weapons can also be considered as a valid motivating factor for Kim to shift to diplomatic negotiations, and aim to pressurize the opposing party agree to his favourable terms.

Laying the Groundwork for Reforms?

Kim Jong-un has in the past tried the ‘stick’ version of diplomacy by hurling abuses and threatening the US and maybe now, equipped with a sense of security because of the nuclear arsenal, he is shifting to ‘carrot’ version of diplomacy, desiring the end result to be, the acceptance of North Korean regime. In his six years of rule, if anything, Kim Jong-un has proved that he has ‘plans’. Starting from Byungjin Policy, aggressive pursuance of nuclear weapons and eradicating any possible competition, Kim is strategically bringing reforms in the regime beneath the guise of continuity. The survival of the regime is of paramount importance to the leader and Kim knows it can be achieved only when the regime’s legitimacy is not under external threat.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that the Panmunjom summit was definitely a historic and impressive day in the history of the Peninsula. From smiling faces of both the leaders, to the promises of a “new era of peace” (pyeonghwaui saeloun sidae) the summit was a success in terms of public diplomacy. However, with big powers like China and United States involved, shaping a new era of peace will not be easy, especially when the objectives of the involved parties are not in tandem with each other’s. The difference of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” stated by South Korea in accordance with US, and Kim Jong-un’s “phased and synchronised denuclearisation” can and probably will be the cause of friction in the momentum of this positive development.

This budding North-South bonhomie will be further put to test in the upcoming Kim-Trump meeting, to be held in Singapore next month. With both Kim and Trump having a flair for unpredictability and aggressive approach, it would be interesting to observe how the two leaders work towards ‘solving’ decades-long conflict.


[1] The two leaders adopted a joint peace declaration after the three-day meeting, agreeing to work towards independent unification and humanitarian and economic cooperation. For more, see:  https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/resources/collections/peace_agreements/n_skorea06152000.pdf

China’s Relations with North Korea: Not an Ally but a Card

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

China has gone around Asia, particularly, Southeast Asia telling countries to behave because they are smaller than China.[1] Beijing however, is strangely more diffident when it comes to Pyongyang’s consistently cocking a snook at it and also complicating China’s regional security environment at the same time. As opposed as they are to the DPRK’s nuclear status, the Chinese also do not seek a US-led regime change through military means and to see either North Korean refugees or American troops on its borders.[2]


Chinese Views on North Korea’s Nuclear Programme

Chinese scholars also view the DPRK as feeling genuinely threatened by the US and that its development of nuclear weapons is for regime survival.[3] The huge US-ROK joint military exercises in March-April 2016[4] according to the Chinese caused major worry in Pyongyang, which sees such exercises as disguising potential military invasion. Continue reading “China’s Relations with North Korea: Not an Ally but a Card”