A year before their 2018 Singapore summit, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were engaged in a war of words. "Rocket Man" was ready to press his "nuclear button", to be met by "fire and fury". Yet, for all its optics, the Singapore summit produced a vague statement containing plenty of pledges, which have not been translated into actual progress on North Korea's denuclearisation.
At the one-year anniversary of that meeting, we remain stuck in a status quo of stalled negotiations. Did we expect too much from one short summit in Singapore, and an even shorter one in Hanoi? The answer may be a resounding yes. We are dealing with North Korea after all.
While the days of fire and fury have not returned " just yet " US-North Korea negotiations have stagnated throughout 2018 and 2019. The "no deal" of Hanoi only underscored the herculean task that is negotiating with Pyongyang, on the part of the US. The art of the deal becomes considerably more complex when the two sides remain unwilling to compromise.
North Korea has made few concessions since the Singapore summit. The moratorium on nuclear testing has remained, since the last nuclear test in September 2017. That said, North Korea's recent launch of short-range projectiles in May was a stern reminder to the US that things can quickly revert to the days of frequent missile testing.
Post-Hanoi, Pyongyang has shown little reluctance to hide its frustration at the US's insistence on complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement (CVID). In April, Kim called for the US to "quit its current calculation method and approach us with (a) new one", giving a deadline of the end of 2019.
The regime has targeted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, based around the notion that US insistence on unilateral disarmament ad nauseam, is a futile strategy. As was the case during the six-party talks, Pyongyang's reactive diplomacy shows few signs of slowing: only when the US "gives", will Pyongyang "give" in return.
Pyongyang's nuclear programme remains in situ. While the world focuses on Yongbyon, North Korea's hallmark nuclear facility, satellite imagery shows yet another obstacle to denuclearisation: undeclared sites. Reminiscent of the "first nuclear crisis" in the 1990s, when the hermit kingdom refused access to undeclared nuclear sites by international inspectors, these new satellite images show how recently discovered undeclared sites offer prime storage for intercontinental ballistic missiles, and new operating sites for missile launches.
While only speculation for now, the existence of these sites is worth bearing in mind in the context of North Korea's desire " ever since its proclamation in 2005 " to be recognised as a nuclear state.
Speculations of a third summit between the US and North Korea abound, yet the lesson from Hanoi is that Pyongyang is unwilling to make upfront, unilateral concessions. Moreover, North Korea will not negotiate with a dialogue partner that cannot recognise its desire for a phased approach to catalysing the denuclearisation process.
Although a third summit may be a domestic boost for Trump's re-election campaign, understandings of how to denuclearise between the two sides continue to remain in conflict. We must also not forget North Korea's best friend China, for which a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable, but stability on the Korean peninsula is paramount.
Following Kim's post-Singapore debriefing visit to Xi Jinping, we should not be surprised if further Kim-Xi summits are in the pipeline. That said, China is in no rush to host the North Korean leader again, following the provocative missile launches in May.
Rather, Beijing continues to maintain the status quo through oil supplies, and assisting North Korea's evasion of UN Security Council sanctions through cross-border trade. In March, two Chinese companies were sanctioned by the US for assisting with illicit ship-to-ship coal and oil smuggling. Despite Beijing's harder line in support of UN resolutions " especially since 2016 " it still seems willing to help a "friend" that is the enemy of its enemy.
What next, to avoid the trap of stagnant negotiations with North Korea? If China is not going to make a bold move, maybe it is time for Washington to do so, realising that if Pyongyang is not going to budge, perhaps Washington should play the opening card of limited sanctions easing. What about Seoul, which recently highlighted the possibility of a fourth inter-Korean summit between Kim and Moon Jae-in, but did not specify a date. Making a deal may be an art, but nobody said that every decision would be palatable.
With the North Korean foreign ministry stating earlier this month that "there is a limit to our patience" with the US, will the US lower its expectations and conclude, perhaps, a temporary deal that does not require CVID? Unlikely, yes, but impossible, no.
Edward Howell is an ESRC scholar in international relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula
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