In February 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un met in Hanoi, Vietnam for a summit addressing the issue of North Korean nuclear capability. The summit ended abruptly without an agreement, as Trump demanded a guarantee against nuclear and missile tests, while Kim demanded a lifting of all sanctions. Some experts greeted this news with assertions that the Hanoi summit was doomed from the start as North Korea never intended to denuclearize, calling that moment “the Hanoi Holdup.” However, it might be more appropriate to say that the Hanoi Summit was never intended to achieve an outcome in which Pyongyang gives up on its nuclear arsenal. Instead, the Hanoi Summit should be viewed as part of a long forthcoming diplomatic process of confidence-building measures and de-escalation.
Within the framework of this process, the U.S. would increase its diplomatic leeway in Northeast Asia with both North Korea and its main power backer China, as the strategic environment will be less conflict-prone. More importantly, a North Korea behaving more peacefully, even without giving up on its nuclear weapons, could experience a gradual lifting of sanctions, opening itself to outside capital that would also pave the way for the regime’s gradual liberalization.
Despite the formal diplomatic rhetoric that states that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the primary goal of talks between the U.S. and North Korea, this is not a realistic prospect. Namely, any talks that are defined as denuclearization talks will inevitably be considered a failure, as there is virtually no hope that Pyongyang will give up on its nuclear weapons. The main reason for this is that nuclear weapons remain the best deterrent against foreign intervention and regime change. For Kim Jong-un and North Korea, nuclear weapons guarantee regime survival, particularly in light of the Iraqi and Libyan experiences and after viewing how Trump undermined the international nuclear agreement with Iran. Moreover, for North Korea, nuclear weapons are an important leverage and bargaining chip in any diplomatic talks with the U.S. and South Korea. Further, nuclear weapons are a perfect instrument for the regime in Pyongyang to prop up its domestic support.
Any analysis that takes into account the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must consider the ongoing negotiating process as a failing endeavor, given that Pyongyang is not giving up on its nuclear weapons. Instead, the Hanoi Summit needs to be perceived as a part of a wider diplomatic continuum in which North Korea does not give up nuclear weapons; rather, tensions are relieved through diplomatic engagement and a more benevolent strategic environment is being built. No one should expect this task to be easy. Indeed, North Korea pulled its officer from a liaison office with South Korea on the same day President Trump rescinded a new round of sanctions that the U.S. Treasury imposed on Pyongyang. That move is troublesome but, compared to the nuclear tests by North Korea, it is meager.
Historically, China used to be Pyongyang’s main and only great power protector. However, Beijing can live with a Pyongyang that is doing business with Washington, as long as the U.S. does not try to roll back Chinese influence from the country and does not try to absorb Pyongyang into its alliance system. A Pyongyang that does not threaten Washington is good news for Beijing, which wants strategic stability in Northeast Asia. A Pyongyang that engages with the U.S. might be more willing to embrace a policy of an occasional balancing act between Washington and Beijing, without entering into a full-fledged alliance with the U.S. While Pyongyang will never close the Beijing door for itself, having a North Korea willing to do power bargaining with the U.S. would still improve Washington’s place for maneuvering as the inter-state patterns in the region would be less conflict-prone.
Japan is also showing signs that it wants to engage with North Korea on difficult issues, like Pyongyang’s past abduction of Japanese citizens. North Korean relations with its old partners China and Russia are also being re-energized in the form of increased diplomatic and commercial exchanges. This would have been unimaginable a year ago. North Korea, isolated and estranged from the rest of the world, would return to its erratic behavior and, given its growing nuclear capability, would be more dangerous. As such, as difficult as the current diplomatic process is, it is undoubtedly an improvement over the past period.
One can also observe that the form and pace of diplomatic communication between Washington and Pyongyang is significantly different. A more tangible form of agreement between the two has yet to be achieved; however, leaders Trump and Kim Jong-un are not exchanging insults or threats, which represents an improvement compared to the days when these were the norm. It could be said that Trump has been successful in achieving a thaw with North Korea that will make Pyongyang less tempted to engage in provocative and dangerous activity. Trump has already achieved historic success by establishing a line of communication with his North Korean counterpart, which none of his predecessors were able to achieve in decades. He did this by agreeing to meet Kim before initiating talks of denuclearization, while his predecessors demanded denuclearization without promising a meeting.
North Korea will not give up on its nuclear weapons and the removal of same through military intervention is unfeasible and involves unprecedented level of risk and dangers. By engaging with North Korea, Trump could help slowly integrate North Korea into a wider international system. North Korea would not feel cornered but, as a stakeholder, would be less inclined to provoke, threat or endanger the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea.
Moreover, a North Korea that is opened to the outside world would receive a significant influx of economic capital and information influx from the outside world. Namely, a North Korea that does not feel threatened by outsiders would dedicate its attention to its other immediate needs, which is to improve the standards of its population. This can be done with the gradual lifting of international sanctions. Once sanctions are removed, foreign capital would be more emboldened to enter into the country, which would break its decades-long isolation. In that vein, North Korea does hold economic promise in many sectors. For instance, Pyongyang has between USD 6 and 10 trillion worth of natural minerals that cannot be extracted due to lack of capital and technology. Infrastructure is another sector worth considering. By investing in naval and ground infrastructure, North Korea, which is geographically situated between South Korea, China, North Korea and Russia, could become a connectivity, transportation and trading hub between these dynamic Asian economies.
In that context, the regime in Pyongyang would be forced to adapt and would be more inclined to gradual liberalization with the passage of time. One thing can be noted with a great deal of certainty: the current process with North Korea is a marathon - not a sprint. The dialogue with Pyongyang needs to be treated as a process addressing a historical set of disputes and conflicts and not as a quick solution to an immediate problem. If Trump leaves relations with North Korea to his successor in better shape than the one he encountered, he will already have left a positive mark in history.