It’s almost nine months since the president of the United States and the leader of North Korea met in Singapore for an historic first summit, and the very fact that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands marked a considerable thaw in the rhetoric and a dialling down of the tensions that seemed inevitably to bring the two into conflict over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons’ programme. Fast forward to Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday for a sequel of that historic summit and it’s clear that the hope of Singapore has been replaced by the realities of trying to resolve the interminable differences between Kim’s regime and a US administration that is eager for a foreign policy coup.
If the Vietnam summit failed to reach any agreement on how to proceed with nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula, again the very fact that the two leaders are continuing to meet and build on their developing friendship is a plus in a region looking for a positive. Pyongyang must be dissuaded from continuing to develop its nuclear capabilities and working on dangerous technologies that can deliver miniaturised nuclear payloads within a 10,000km radius of the North.
It is a little over 12 months since this remarkable bout of detente broke out between Pyongyang and Washington, with the leadership of the North using the opportunity of the Winter Olympics in South Korea to open the door to more friendly relationships across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Indeed, prior to that, the North was aggressively engaged in a series of missile tests that rattled regional neighbours and seemed to be leading to a course of inevitable conflict. And with tensions balanced on a knife edge along that DMZ, the conflict can easily deteriorate into one of unimaginable apocalyptic consequences.
The international community through the United Nations Security Council has imposed heavy punitive economic sanctions on the regime for its single-minded pursuit of nuclear capabilities — an all-embracing national programme that has left millions of North Koreans malnourished, imprisoned and re-educated to work towards that goal. These sanctions have proved effective and the tough talk from the Oval Office has brought Kim to the bargaining tables in Singapore and Hanoi.
The stumbling block in Hanoi appears to have been Kim’s insistence that all those sanctions be removed. Clearly, that’s a scenario that cannot happen now — and Trump was right in not moving forward with a deal under these circumstances. But the reality is that for Pyongyang to be encouraged to conform, there will have to be some movement. The carrot and the stick works.