Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
Hopes of a breakthrough abounded as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went to Hanoi, Vietnam, for a second landmark summit, but the two heads of state are returning home without a deal. Speaking after the cancellation of their working lunch on Feb. 28, Trump said Kim had requested that Washington lift sanctions "in their entirety" but that it would be inappropriate for the United States to sign off on a deal, leading Washington to "walk away."
There were positive signs that the United States and North Korea would reach some compromise with their mutual overtures, but we took a more cautious view, emphasizing in our 2019 Annual Forecast that North Korea would only offer progress in exchange for concrete sanctions relief and progress toward a peace deal. We also forecast that neither side would scuttle the outreach overall, but that swings between breakthroughs and breakdowns would occur throughout the year. The abrupt ending to the second U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi confirms this view — and also suggests that there will not be a swing back to the standoff of 2017.
Trump said the countries would bridge the current gap over sanctions with time, adding that North Korea had offered concessions in areas that were "less important" than those desired by the United States. Pyongyang asked for sanctions relief before it would dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear site, the U.S. leader said, adding that his country also called out North Korea on a second, secret enrichment site. In recent weeks, the United States has appeared willing to open up limited gaps in sanctions with clear snapback provisions contingent on Pyongyang's efforts to dismantle its nuclear program. North Korea, by contrast, has long pushed for broader sanctions relief first.
But according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it is not enough for North Korea to scuttle the Yongbyon nuclear site to gain sanctions relief, given that — even without the facility — the country would still possess missiles and other nuclear assets that the United States cannot accept. Pompeo further said North Korea had failed to provide the United States with satisfactory answers on a declaration of the scope of its weapons program. Trump, nevertheless, said Kim had promised to maintain the suspension on weapons testing.
Trump, meanwhile, did not provide clear answers to questions about upcoming U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises set to begin March 4, although he did note his concerns about the costs of the war games. (On his flight back to the United States, the U.S. leader also touched base with South Korean President Moon Jae In regarding the summit.)
The talks in Hanoi might have fizzled, but that does not mean the U.S.-North Korean rapprochement is over.
As for North Korea, reports emerged that a Foreign Ministry delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song left Pyongyang for Beijing on Feb. 28. It remains to be seen how the country's state-run media will portray the result of the summit — especially as it had emphasized the likelihood that the leaders would sign some manner of joint declaration beforehand.
Ultimately, Trump lauded his relationship with Kim as "strong," while U.S. officials noted that the pair parted with an agreement to continue the talks between their countries.
Why It Matters
The talks in Hanoi might have fizzled, but that does not mean the U.S.-North Korean rapprochement is over. Put simply, the costs of a return to the brinkmanship of 2017 are too high for both to completely abandon the talks. Washington has clearly emphasized that Pyongyang will continue to suspend weapons tests and that lower-level bilateral talks will proceed in the coming days and weeks — even if no third leaders' summit is yet on the table.
The United States' ultimate message is that if North Korea desires any future progress, it must give concessions. Ahead of the Hanoi meeting, leaks emerged indicating that officials meeting for working-level talks had failed to hammer out an agreement on denuclearization, such as the dismantling of Yongbyon — meaning that progress hinged on direct discussions between Trump and Kim. Given the particularly thorny technical details of denuclearization, as well as deep mistrust on both sides, Trump's shift to direct dialogue opened the possibility of an escape from the long-running cycle of escalation and de-escalation. But this unpredictable, personal approach is a double-edged sword. The premature end to the Hanoi summit means the two leaders failed to break the working-level impasse. This is certainly not a positive sign that the United States and North Korea are willing to accept a "less for less" compromise on denuclearization, as both clearly still disagree on the sequencing of any concessions.
The U.S. president has built his political and business career on his image as the consummate dealmaker; in his numerous foreign and trade policy maneuvers, he has emphasized that walking away is always an option. After all, Trump canceled (before rescheduling) his June 2018 summit in Singapore over North Korean stubbornness.
Trump's shift to direct dialogue opened the possibility of an escape from the long-running cycle of escalation and de-escalation. But this unpredictable, personal approach is a double-edged sword.
The View From China and Seoul
With the sudden breakdown in Hanoi, North Korea will now move quickly to consult with China. Beijing has a great deal of interest in ensuring U.S.-North Korean relations do not take a nosedive. Kim, meanwhile, is scheduled to remain in Vietnam until March 2 for a "goodwill" tour. But regardless of when he leaves, his first port of call is likely to be Beijing to consult on the impasse with Washington. And given that the United States and China are still trying to settle their own differences on trade, Chinese President Xi Jinping may pay a visit to Washington within a month — something that will provide an opportunity for high-level, U.S.-Chinese discussion of North Korea.
Just across the demilitarized zone, South Korea will also be scrambling to get things back on track — much like it did with the emergency inter-Korean summit in the wake of Trump's decision to cancel the Singapore summit in May 2018. Seoul, which has long played the role of mediator between the two sides, has much to lose if there is a complete collapse in U.S.-North Korean ties — just like Washington and Pyongyang themselves.