Donald Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi is a diplomatic triumph for Pyongyang. For the second time in under a year, the North Korean leader gets to strut his stuff on the world stage. Kim Jong-un is able to stand next to President Trump as – in his imagination – an equal. The Americans, for their part, have had to come to the table and are going to (among other things) likely hear demands for them to reduce their military presence in and around Korea. No, it’s not dignified, but what else can the president do?
Can anything come from these talks? Maybe. Both sides clearly want there to be some progress in the today. Trump made his ambitions pretty clear when he announced at the governor’s ball that he saw these talks as a chance to do something ‘very, very special’. And – as ever with this president – his Twitter feed is a useful window into his mind: in the last few days he has singled out the North Korean leader for praise, saying that Kim could bring ‘rapid growth’ to North Korea. This might raise an eyebrow or two among the not-exactly-well fed denizens of North Korea. Assuming, of course, that they can find a way of getting access to Twitter.
Trump’s critics may have a point when they say that he is far from consistent. But Trump is no fool and he knows that saying he is a ‘friend’ with a dictator who was – just a few months ago – threatening to nuke a number of his cities is not exactly a vote winner. What his statements show is that Trump is banking on getting something from the North Koreans.
Kim, for his part, has practically been jumping and down in his eagerness for more talks ever since the pair’s last meeting in Singapore. The North Koreans have made no secret of their displeasure that talks have only proceeded in fits and starts since then. But interestingly they have managed to keep their bellicose language and tendency to ‘act up’ under control. In other words, they’re acting like they genuinely want a deal.
So what should we expect or even want to come from this summit? The talks that are taking place now – and any follow up conversations – are likely going to be a spin war over denuclearisation, and how far the North Koreans are willing to really ditch nuclear weapons in return for coming in from the cold.
I say ‘spin war’, because the big question is whether Kim will do more than say he’s willing to denuclearise. There may well be dramatic declarations of peace in the coming days and weeks, but as I explained last year, the big issue for the US (and the world) is that Kim can’t be trusted to honour his promises when it comes to denuclearisation. Kim may be happy to talk the talk of denuclearisation, and even engage in one or two stunts, but since then we’ve also had warnings that the North Korean regime has continued with its nuclear programme.
In other words, it’s very easy for Kim to promise to blow up a few unneeded facilities and pretend that that’s a big concession. But it’s much harder to get him to sign up to a deal that actually, genuinely neuters the North Korean regime – or even follow through on such a deal were he to agree to one. There’s just too many experts who can build new weapons; too many underground caverns to hide existing weapons; and way, way too much incentive for him to have weapons, for us to ever be convinced that North Korea is ‘nuke free’ – even if the Americans agree to withdraw their forces from the region.
With Trump having bet big on being able to convince the North Koreans to give up weapons in return for some dropping of sanctions, he badly needs to be able to show his electorate – and a hostile Congress – that he is en route to making America genuinely safer. Yes, he has a habit of claiming victory no matter what happens, but with a far more assertive Democratic party now in charge of the House, it’s harder for him to claim victory if nothing actually changes on the ground.
Is there a happy middle ground to be reached? Perhaps. It’s worth keeping an eye on what the South Koreans say and do. President Moon has put his career – and his life – on the line by pushing for friendly relations with his Northern neighbour, even going so far as to speak in Pyongyang. With North Korea’s weapons aimed firmly at Seoul, the South Koreans clearly have the most to gain from a deal that both ends North Korea's status as an international pariah and genuinely sees some disarmament. To put it bluntly, President Moon needs to see the talks result in something that keeps the North Koreans happy, but isn’t just ‘spin’.
There is one line of thought that it’s now too late to ever hope to get a nuclear-free North Korea. The last chance to do that was during the Obama administration – and the then-president (true to form) failed to act. Having become the major problem that Machiavelli warned that rogue states can become, it’s tricky to see how these talks can – really – change the situation in the short to medium term. But if president Moon breathes a sigh of relief this evening, it probably means that we can too.