Editor’s Note: Looking for more opinions on where we go after the Hanoi summit? Check out all 80 expert takes on where U.S-North Korea relations go next here.
No doubt those North Korea experts who predicted that the Hanoi Summit would fail, have found cold comfort in the news over the past two weeks. The apparent collapse of the summit seemed to come partly as a result of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s unwillingness to put more of North Korea’s programme on the table. Failure also stemmed partly from the Trump administration’s apparent walk-back from the step-by-step approach. There are really two questions that have arisen from Hanoi’s failure: “what went wrong?” and “what next?” In attempting to answer the latter question, one must ask whether we will return to the tense period that marked the early part of the Trump administration, with North Korea and the United States shadow-boxing over U.S. attempts to impose an effective economic blockade.
Already, we are beginning to see emerging (or re-emerging) signs of that more familiar relationship dynamic, with the North Koreans apparently restoring facilities at a long-range rocket launch site it had dismantled last year. The revelation—acquired on March 2 from commercial satellite imagery—was discussed in a recent event at Center for Strategic and International Studies, where Victor Cha and Joseph Bermudez showed how the rail mounted transfer structure and vertical test engine stands at Sohae launch facility had been restored over a matter of days. Given that the site had been dormant since August 2018, it has been suggested by many North Korea experts that we are due a return to the provocation cycle that has characterized North Korean tactics for so long.
When one looks at the U.S. position, one can also see signs that the United States is returning to a hardline posture. For instance, take Trump’s allegations that North Korea wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety and his statement at the press conference immediately after Hanoi. There are also those who point to the recent shift in the Trump administration’s negotiating strategy from a step-by-step approach to a “go big” approach. Special Representative Steve Biegun’s shift in this direction is likely to doom future progress by making the choice between unilateral disarmament and doubling down on the nuclear weapons strategy. A third—and as of yet, unstated, question—is can the United States persuade regional partners and allies to re-exert “Maximum Pressure” after the long interval? This question takes on even more salience when one considers how far things have drifted between South Korea and its traditional partners, Japan and the United States.
In a report co-authored by Henry Jackson Society and others last year, an expert panel predicted three future scenarios; a best-case scenario, a middle-of-the-road, and a worst-case scenario. This last scenario saw a breakdown of negotiations, followed by a breakdown in regional support for the U.S. “maximum pressure.” We see signs of this third scenario emerging.
One hopes the administration will approach this new stage with great care and diplomatic acumen.
Dr. John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society and an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He is based in London.