Hanoi summit creates opportunities for China, South Korea, Japan

March 04, 2019 16:01
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump relied on their personal chemistry to try to resolve complex issues during their summit in Hanoi. Photo: Bloomberg

The failure of the Feb. 27-28 Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit in Hanoi to produce an agreement on denuclearization was largely the result of insufficient preparation by both the United States and North Korea, which relied on the two leaders’ personal chemistry to resolve complex issues where lower-level officials had failed.

The emphasis now shifts not only to the working level of the two bureaucracies but to China and South Korea, which had acted as intermediaries, and possibly to Japan as well.

On March 1, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed China that Washington planned to stay in touch with Pyongyang. Pompeo told Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member who was China’s top diplomat, that the US appreciated China playing a positive role and would like to keep in touch with it, according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Yang responded with China’s official position, saying that the US and North Korea should be patient, meet each other halfway and strive for new achievements. China, Yang said, will continue to play a constructive role.

Before leaving Hanoi, Trump responded to a reporter’s question about China by saying that President Xi Jinping has been “very, very helpful with North Korea generally,” adding: “Could he be a little more helpful? Probably. But he’s been excellent.”

This suggests that Trump, who last May accused Xi of getting Kim to adopt a harder line, now wants China to help denuclearize North Korea.

The Chinese actually sprang into action as soon as the Trump-Kim summit ended, with Wang Yi, Chinese state councilor and foreign minister, holding a meeting with Ri Kil-song, vice foreign minister of North Korea. Commenting on events in Hanoi, Wang said difficulties were unavoidable because of “deep-seated issues” but noted that the solution lay “through dialogue”.

Vice Minister Ri was in Beijing to discuss celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary this year of the establishment of China-North Korea relations. Xi is expected to visit Pyongyang and there will be many opportunities for China-North Korea interaction.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who lobbied hard to bring about the first Trump-Kim summit, was probably the biggest loser in the failed Hanoi meeting. As Trump acknowledged at the press conference, “President Moon is working very hard. He’d love to see a deal and he’s been very helpful.”

Moon may well lobby Trump on the restoration of inter-Korean economic cooperation, such as the reopening of the Kaesong industrial park, before a comprehensive agreement linking North Korean denuclearization and the easing of economic sanctions.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan was clearly relieved that no agreement was signed in Hanoi. He has worked hard to court Trump, including nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and feared that the US might agree to an accord to neutralize Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missiles while leaving in place missiles capable of striking Japan and South Korea.

Until recently, Abe has insisted on the resolution of the long-standing issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens first before dealing with nuclear issues. However, the situation has changed, especially since North Korea fired ballistic missiles over Japan in 2017.

Two months ago, at the opening of the Japanese Diet, Abe said he wanted to “break the shell of mutual distrust” and “directly face Chairman Kim Jong-un next to resolve North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues, as well as the abductees issue”.

This could prove to be a positive development. With Trump mired in domestic problems, Japan may find an opportunity to develop relations with North Korea and use its influence to persuade Kim that his country’s future lies in being part of the region’s rapid growth while abandoning its nuclear weapons.

China, too, sees an opportunity in the aftermath of the failure of the Trump-Kim summit to sign denuclearization agreement. A Global Times article on March 3 headlined “All’s not lost after second Kim-Trump summit” pointed out that the summit had “helped reveal some, if not all, bottom lines in both North Korea’s and the US’ stances toward nuclear and related issues”.

It concluded that, with Trump mired in domestic political issues, “if a third party is willing to offer help” by picking up the pieces of the last summit, “there is reasonable hope that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is not a pipe dream”.

The Global Times writer may have had China in mind but there is no reason why Japan, the closest US ally in the region, shouldn’t flex its diplomatic muscles as well, considering the closeness of Abe’s relationship with Trump.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.