Though not totally unexpected, the failure of the Hanoi Summit was an unwelcome development for the U.S.-North Korea détente as well as a disappointment for the host country, Vietnam. Both U.S. and North Korean officials ended the talks abruptly on Thursday, with lingering differences over sanctions relief, and the two sides did not commit to a third Trump-Kim summit. Such an outcome also did not live up to the Vietnamese government’s expectations of contributing to the peace and denuclearization processes between the two Koreas and the United States.
However, in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, it is important to assess how U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will proceed to avoid a collapse of the denuclearization process as well as how Vietnam can reap long-term benefits for its international profile and tourism industry. It may be the case that the Hanoi summit was a failure, but a necessary one in the context of growing unrealistic expectations from both Washington and Pyongyang. Vietnam still has a lot to do after the summit to continue contributing to North Korea’s reform and denuclearization.
A Return to Reality
Among the reasons behind the failure of the Hanoi summit, pre-summit high expectations and miscommunications between the United States and North Korea should also be accounted for. Several days before and during the Hanoi summit, talk of an agreement featuring a new U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang and an end of war declaration dominated the headlines of many newspapers.
Unfortunately, these reports shifted the focus of the summit away from its essence, which was North Korea’s request for U.S. sanctions relief and “corresponding measures” to move the denuclearization process forward. Even though ending the Korean War and opening liaison offices fulfill the first two steps of the Singapore Declaration, North Korea would perceive them as hollow gestures in the absence of U.S. signals to tone down its costly “maximum pressure campaign.” Moreover, the failure of the Hanoi summit also reveals another hurdle in the denuclearization process regarding the scope of sanctions relief. North Korea reportedly wanted the United States to lift the five most recent United Nations sanctions adopted between 2016 and 2017; however, Washington perceived these sanctions as the core of the maximum pressure on North Korea. Additionally, contrary to the U.S. pre-summit expectation that Kim also wanted to discuss other parts of North Korea’s nuclear program, Kim’s discussion of only the Yongbyon complex and the U.S. lack of preparation for such a scenario reveals the degree of miscommunication between the two sides. In this context, the failure of the Hanoi summit is a necessary bitter pill for the United States and North Korea to return to reality.
However, such a failure should not spell the end of the U.S.-North Korea détente. Instead, the Hanoi summit was a good opportunity for Washington and Pyongyang to better grasp one another’s intentions. For North Korea, sanctions relief and inter-Korean economic cooperation remain the top priority. Liaison offices and an end of war declaration do not fit with Kim’s “New Strategic Line” of economic development, regardless of how good they may sound. For the United States, a continuation of North Korea’s test moratorium and the dismantling of North Korean nuclear facilities in addition to Yongbyon at a reasonable pace of sanctions relief will occupy its future talks with Pyongyang. Also, both sides need to narrow their differences over the definition of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as well as the substances of sanctions relief. There are positive signs that Trump and Kim do not perceive the failure of the Hanoi summit as a dead end, and that the two sides will continue improving the bilateral relationship and meet again for “positive discussions.”
Where Does Vietnam Go From Here?
What does all this mean for Vietnam? We argued in a previous piece that Vietnam would emerge a “winner” no matter the outcome of the summit. Indeed, locals might find the congested traffic for the past week inconvenient, but most would agree that the activities leading to the meeting, and the main event itself were well organized, without any major security or logistical hiccups. Trump himself and on the other side officials under Kim all praised the host’s efforts, despite the hurried preparation period of less than two weeks — much shorter than the two-month notice given in advance by Trump and Kim for their meeting in Singapore last June.
Furthermore, before and during the event, images of Hanoi filling the media and social networks showcased a fast-growing city with a unique blend of old and new in a dynamic environment crowded with young and friendly faces. Therefore, it is reasonable to predict that the tourism sector of Vietnam in general, and Hanoi in particular, will receive a significant boost in 2019 and beyond thanks to this summit. To actually benefit from this opportunity, though, the central and local authorities in Hanoi must continue to ensure the improvement of the services quality, and general infrastructure, both of which leave a lot to be desired.
But just as people should not be too disappointed by the unexpected ending of the Trump-Kim meetup, Vietnamese officials should not be content with a simple revenue increase from foreign visitors. For the past two days, Hanoi became a beacon of hope for a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. But if Vietnam cannot sustain the diplomatic momentum gained from the summit, it would follow in the footsteps of Mongolia — an important host and mediator of the peace negotiation process for the Korean Peninsula during the early 2000s that has not been able to play any significant role in North Korea-related dialogues since then. Aspiring to be another Paris or Geneva, whose names often make people think of numerous negotiations important to modern history, including the peace process for Vietnam itself, the Vietnam government should maintain a proactive role. As we recommended in a January article in suggesting that Vietnam should host the summit, Hanoi should continue to approach its American and North Korean counterparts to make clear that they should continue to talk, albeit at lower levels, in Hanoi.
Trump has repeatedly suggested that North Korea should learn from Vietnam’s lessons in economic reforms and normalization of international relations, whereas North Korean officials themselves also expressed their willingness to apply in whole or part the “Doi Moi” (renovation, or reform) model of Vietnam for North Korea. Thus it might be feasible for Vietnam to sell a longer-term hosting role for Hanoi with regards to the bilateral discussion between the United States and North Korea. In addition, Vietnam should also strive for a bigger and leading role in regional and international dialogues on peace and security after many years of limiting itself as an “exemplary follower” of international principles and standards. Such change of status would be essential for Vietnam’s middle-power diplomatic strategy.
In his March 1 speech, South Korean President Moon Jae-in reaffirmed Seoul’s role as a mediator between the United States and North Korea and stressed the “meaningful progress” made during the Hanoi summit. North Korea’s Korea Central News Agency also painted the Hanoi summit in a positive light, saying the meeting built mutual trust between the United States and North Korea. Trump also wants to maintain the détente with North Korea and to move the relationship forward. And Vietnam wishes to continue playing its part to push for peace on the Korean peninsula after the Hanoi summit. Thus, the failure of the Hanoi summit should be seen as the beginning of more pragmatic U.S.-North Korea negotiations and a promise of progress in future talks – hopefully with Vietnam continuing to play a role.
Viet Phuong Nguyen is a post–doctoral research fellow with the Managing the Atom Project and International Security Program of Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School.
Khang Vu is a Master’s candidate at Dartmouth College, where he focuses on East Asian politics and U.S. East Asia policy.