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6 March: The Hanoi Summit - What Future for the Korean Peninsula?

8 March 2019

The Hanoi Summit - What Future for the Korean Peninsula?

On Wednesday 6 March, the EU-Asia Centre and the VUB Korea Chair jointly hosted an expert discussion on the outcome of the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi. The event drew around 50 experts from the public and private sectors to discuss whether the Summit could be described, as done by most media outlets, as a ‘failure’ – or whether there are reasons to remain optimistic. The discussion was led by James Moran, Senior Advisor to the EU-Asia Centre, who was joined by a number of representatives from the policy-making and the think-tank realms:

·      Mr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Korea Chair at the VUB

·      Ms. Lisa Picheny, Political Officer at NATO

·      Mr. Dustin Dockiewicz, Political Section, US Mission to the EU

·      Mr. Bruno Hellendorff, Joint Research Fellow, Egmont/EPC

·      Mr. Il Eung Kim, Counsellor at the Mission of the Republic of Korea to the EU

It was noted that media coverage surrounding and following the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi bore a negative undertone, emphasizing the lack of an agreement resulting from the differences between the US and the DPRK on the issue of denuclearization in particular. Indeed, Kim came to the negotiation table indicating his willingness to work towards the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – albeit under the condition that the totality of UN-sponsored sanctions currently instituted against the regime are rescinded. US negotiators were for a plethora of reasons unable to clinch such a deal, as it may put regional stability and peace at risk and eliminate any meaningful incentives for Pyongyang to follow through on its denuclearization commitments. 

Denuclearization proved to be the stumbling block of the summit. Kim was not accompanied by his requisite experts on nuclear dismantling, which made it difficult for the US to assess what a ‘complete dismantling’ of the Yongbyon nuclear complex exactly meant – and what a viable timeframe for such a dismantling would be. As pointed out by a number of panellists, however, the lack of agreement cannot be equated to a complete lack of progress. A physical US presence inside the DPRK in the form of a ‘liaison office’ was discussed - as was the strengthening of lower-level bilateral ties through the formation of working groups.

Some panellists argued that Kim’s hands are tied as over the past few years, DPRK state media as well as Kim himself have made far-reaching promises on economic prosperity and welfare, responding to the demands of the DPRK’s growing middle class. This means that Kim is keen to get rid of sanctions. It is unlikely, therefore, that Kim will resort to underground nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile testing. Such a move would result in an American halt to the negotiation process.  

The process so far has been characterized by strong involvement of the personae of both Kim and Trump. This may jeopardize progress as either leader may decide to pull out of the process for domestic considerations. The invigoration of bilateral ties at the operational level is therefore a welcome measure to ensure sustainability of the process, concurrently paving the way for a gradual normalization of diplomatic relations. 

It was pointed out that China and Russia are already circumventing sanctions through bilateral agreements on the promotion of tourist flows and cross-border economic projects – suggesting that both China and Russia view the future of the DPRK as integrated into the region. Recently, rumours emerged that Moscow was to offer Pyongyang a nuclear reactor in return for the full denuclearization of its military. 

It was suggested that the European Union may be able to assist the US in two ways – first, by continuing to rally global support for the current UN sanctions against the DPRK, and second – partially through the diplomatic channels of its Member States – to ensure that the DPRK is to take the working-level contacts with the US seriously. Panellists agreed that the role of the EU remains limited at this stage. The US greatly values the support of the EU for the multilateral sanctions, as illustrated by the visit of US Special Envoy for the DPRK to the EU’s Political and Security Committee and the EEAS immediately after the Summit concluded.

As to NATO, panellists agreed that the alliance is currently not in the driver’s seat – but may grow in relevance in case a deal is agreed that involves the dismantling of of Kim’s WMD. NATO may in that case assist in verification missions. For now, however, NATO continues to execute its core mission – defend and deter. It continues to engage in consistent messaging towards the international community in order to increase pressure on Kim’s regime, and it continues to act as a platform for intelligence sharing within the alliance and with likeminded nations (Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea).

An outstanding question in the international community relates to the security guarantee for the DPRK once it agrees to abandon its nuclear programme. As Russia and China continue to view their engagement with the DPRK through the lens of their respective relationship with the US, any future guarantor of security in the region must extend beyond regional actors to the US and its allies. Kim must, however, first come to the somewhat ironic realization that what he considers to be his exclusive security guarantee against unwanted foreign interference – his nuclear programme – is exactly what attracts that interference. It rather acts as an antithesis to security. 

Some participants voiced concerns that human rights have still not made their way into the talks – others pointed out that the margins for discussing this particularly sensitive issue are extremely narrow at this point. We can only hope for broader discussion space in the future, as talks progress and mutual trust builds.