The well-orchestrated second summit between US President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un had all the trappings of a reality show that the maverick Republican leader would revel in. But, the script soon went awry with Trump walking out midway through the bilateral talks at Hanoi in Vietnam. The optics and atmospherics were well in place but the outcome turned out to be disastrous as both sides failed to strike a deal. The reclusive communist country insisted that the US must first end all economic sanctions before it can give its commitment to a specific denuclearisation plan. The collapse of the much-hyped one-on-one talks puts a question mark over the peace initiative surrounding the Korean peninsula. The sticking point that has proved unbridgeable is the issue of sanctions versus nuclear demilitarisation. However, a positive takeaway from the summit is an assurance from Trump that the negotiators from both sides would keep the channel of communication open. While Kim insists that the US lift all sanctions before North Korea can disarm and extinguish its nuclear programme, the US says all sanctions cannot be lifted before credible action is taken towards nuclear disarmament. The deep divide reflects an absence of trust, brought about by nearly seven decades of hostility between the two countries. After the historic handshake between the two leaders at their first summit in Singapore in June last year, hopes were raised over possible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. In fact, the Hanoi summit was expected to result in a formal declaration of cessation of hostilities between the two Koreas.
One of the key reasons for America’s reluctance to completely lift sanctions is the fear that North Korea might use it to re-energise and move forward with its nuclear programme covertly. On the other hand, Pyongyang fears that if it abandons its nuclear programme, it will be a sitting duck in a military attack. The two Koreas – North and South – are technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict. Fighting ended based on a temporary truce, which has never been converted into a permanent declaration of peace. After years in belligerent isolation, and faced with tougher US sanctions, Kim made an unprecedented overture last year resulting in the first-ever summit on June 12, 2018, at a resort in Singapore between a sitting US President and a North Korean ruler. The summit took the world by surprise, though nothing much was expected to emerge from it. The US drew back to some extent on sanctions while Pyongyang paused its nuclear activities. Despite the failure of talks, a silver lining at the Hanoi summit was Trump’s concession that he had struck a personal relationship with Kim.