By Jon Dougherty
Disappointed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wouldn’t budge from his demand that the U.S. lift all of its economic sanctions on his regime without first agreeing to meaningful denuclearization commitment, POTUS Donald Trump hopped aboard Air Force One Thursday afternoon and headed back to Washington, D.C.
“Sometimes you have to walk,” the president said during a solo press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, before his departure.
POTUS said he pressed Kim to do more to demonstrate his intentions to denuclearize, but that “he was unprepared to do that.”
Nevertheless, the president sounded upbeat that an agreement could eventually be struck, noting that it wasn’t important to get everything at once, per Fox News:
Trump specifically said negotiations fell through after the North demanded a full removal of U.S.-led international sanctions in exchange for the shuttering of the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the United States wasn’t willing to make a deal without the North committing to giving up its secretive nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon, as well as its missile and warheads program.
“It was about the sanctions,” Trump said. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
“I’d much rather do it right than do it fast,” Trump added, echoing his remarks from earlier in the day when he insisted that “speed” was not important. “We’re in a position to do something very special.”
“The two leaders discussed various ways to advance denuclearization and economic driven concepts,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement after the summit ended.
“No agreement was reached at this time, but their respective teams look forward to meeting in the future,” she added, describing the meetings between Trump and Kim, which took place Wednesday and Thursday in Hanoi, as “very good and constructive.”
The Washington Examiner noted:
Thursday’s working lunch, expected to be the culmination of talks, was canceled shortly before it was to begin, as was the signing ceremony scheduled right after. The president’s press conference slated for just before 4 p.m. local time — 4 a.m. Eastern — was pushed up to 2 p.m.
“At this time, we had some options, and we decided not to do any of the options. We’ll see where that goes,” Trump told reporters in Hanoi. “But it was a very interesting two days. And I think actually it was a very productive two days. But sometimes you have to walk. And this was just one of those times.”
One factor that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media is the behind-the-scenes influence China is likely wielding over the talks. While Beijing played a much more public role prior to the first meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore last year, the fact that China has not been mentioned much this time around doesn’t mean Beijing has sat on the sidelines.
38 North notes:
Beijing’s more backseat role in parallel US-DPRK and inter-Korean talks may fuel suspicions about the marginalization of China in the ongoing diplomatic processes taking place with North Korea. In particular, the direct channels of communication established between the US and the DPRK, now including a possible US liaison office in North Korea, seem to support a narrative of Chinese exclusion.
However, judging by Beijing’s recent statements and actions, China does not appear particularly concerned about being sidelined from US-DPRK direct engagement, including the second Trump-Kim summit. The Chinese Foreign Ministry and senior government officials have publicly expressed their support of the summit and hope for positive outcomes. This is consistent with their high praise regarding the result of the first Trump-Kim summit last year. Had China truly felt excluded from the process, Beijing would hardly remain this calm and gracious.
Several reasons explain China’s calm embrace of the Trump-Kim summits. The most important is that North Korea has maintained close communication and consultation with Beijing throughout this process. In 2018, the inaugural Singapore Summit was preceded by two visits to China by Kim Jong Un: in March and in May. If the first trip was to repair ties between these two countries on the senior level, after six years of mutual cold shoulders, the second trip—which occurred after the first inter-Korean summit and at the peak of negotiations over the first Trump-Kim summit—was clearly about acquiring Beijing’s buy-in to the summit and consulting over the details.
North Korea’s trust of and dependence on China was later attested by the fact that Kim Jong Un flew to Singapore on an Air China plane previously used by Chinese senior leaders and through Chinese airspace. Furthermore, within one week after meeting Trump in Singapore, Kim Jong Un visited China again to debrief the Chinese leaders on the proceedings and results of the summit.
This second time around is no different. Kim Jong Un visited Beijing in January, during the negotiation stage of the second summit, reportedly to consult with the Chinese on the negotiation positions and potential outcomes of the meeting. Moreover, another meeting between Kim and Xi will likely happen promptly after the Hanoi Summit.
Certainly, Kim Jong Un’s China-dependent travel arrangements for both of Kim’s summits with Trump is particularly reassuring for the Chinese; it does not only indicate the unique status China plays as a facilitator, but also proves to Beijing Kim’s willingness to expose vulnerabilities only to the Chinese, entrusting them with his safety.
It would seem in China’s interest for the U.S. to lift its sanctions on North Korea, if for no other reason than because Pyongyang’s chief patron, allowing the North to engage in more commerce reduced the need for aid from Beijing.
But certainly China has an interest in seeing the Korean peninsula denuclearized, and Beijing likely appreciates a slow-going process that it can more easily manage. With denuclearization and normalization of relations comes additional opportunities beneficial to China, like pushing for the removal of all U.S. forces from the peninsula, though that would depend in large part on South Korea and whether Seoul was comfortable with that.
Bottom line, as 38 North notes: “Fundamentally, there is still a real trust deficit between Washington and Pyongyang, which prevents the acceptance of a quick denuclearization process. So long as a US security threat remains a top priority for North Korea, China can maintain its position as the guarantor of North Korean security and influence the negotiations.”
As for Kim, it makes sense that he would seek to have sanctions lifted on his country because they are hurting. Also, he believes since he has already made what he feels are substantial concessions — ending nuclear and missile testing; destroying a missile testing site; closing his nuclear-testing site, among others — that it’s time for the U.S. to give a little as well.
- Follow Jon Dougherty on Twitter at @JonDougherty10
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