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Will Korean peace be achieved in Thailand?

Jun 20. 2019
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By Chaiyong Satjitpanon
Special to The Nation

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If there is another summit between the United States and North Korea, there is a high possibility that Thailand will be the venue chosen to breathe life back into the peace process following the collapse of talks in Vietnam in February.

But in order to look forward on the path to peace, we must first ask what went wrong in Hanoi. Why did Trump quit the negotiating table even before the planned state lunch, refusing even to issue the previously prepared formal Hanoi declaration and declaring instead that “no deal is better than a bad deal”?

Before the Hanoi summit, the path to peace on the Korean peninsula had looked promising. Trump called Kim Jung-un a great leader of a country with a bright future as an economic powerhouse. He added that he and Kim had a special relationship and would work together on Korean denuclearisation without the need to rush.

The sweet atmosphere lasted right up until dinner in Hanoi on February 27, so what caused it to suddenly sour the next day?

No one seems to know; even those at the negotiating table have no clear answer. 

On the afternoon of February 28 at the JW Marriott Hotel, Trump said the talks had collapsed because North Korea pushed to have all economic sanctions lifted – a proposal that the US could not accept. North Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ri Yong-ho, retorted from the nearby Melia Hotel that they had only asked for a partial lifting of sanctions.

Trump’s supporters claim his pullout is on par with Ronald Reagan quitting the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the Soviets accepting the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty the following year. Indeed, abandoning the negotiating table can be a successful strategy.

Who caused the collapse?

Many observers immediately blamed the collapse on Trump’s solo style and top-down diplomacy, which ignored details from the working group level. Trump may well have arrived in Hanoi without all the pieces in place, confident he could make a deal. Looking back at the failed approaches of presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama on North Korea, Trump likely felt comfortable dispensing with tedious diplomacy in favour of his own direct style.

Others point to Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, as central to the breakdown. Bolton’s distrust of North Korea is well known. 

Or perhaps Trump merely wanted to get away from Washington during the Congressional testimony of Michael Cohen, his former lawyer turned political foe.

There is also the possibility that Kim himself, under attack from military hardliners in his government, was trying to strengthen his hand to defeat political manoeuvrings back in North Korea. 

One member in Kim’s summit team was not a career diplomat but from the security and intelligence apparatus. His intent was clearly not to yield to US demands for denuclearisation. Thus, the Hanoi talks may have failed because of hardline members of the negotiating teams on both sides.

Alternatively, these developments may have originated with China, which wants the Korean peace process to include a withdrawal of US military forces from the peninsula. Kim had travelled to meet President Xi Jinping four times before the talks, including as recently as January. 

Muddying the context further, on February 27 Trump assured Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of US support for “freedom of navigation” in the region – a direct jab at China’s territorials claims in the South China Sea. 

Pompeo then warned that the US would respond to any aggressive moves by China against the Philippines in the disputed area. China’s Foreign Ministry retorted that the issue was a matter between the neighbouring countries and not for an “outside power”.

What’s the real problem?

The US wants final and fully verifiable denuclearisation, which from North Korea’s perspective is unacceptable. North Korea, on the other hand, wants relief from the most important sanctions – something the US is unprepared to consider at this juncture.

So what happens now after the “no deal” outcome of Hanoi’s summit. Will Trump return to the bellicose language of 2016 and reapply “maximum pressure” on North Korea? Unlikely. Trump has stated that due to budget constraints the US will roll back joint military manoeuvres with South Korea. Still, the US cannot allow North Korea to add to its nuclear arsenal. Perhaps both sides could agree to a “freeze-for-freeze” deal so as to avoid further tension in the region.

On a positive note, Pompeo said that both sides will return to staff-level negotiations to map a way forward. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in also remains a positive force in the negotiations, and of course China wishes to be main player as well. Perhaps, the third summit will emerge from South Korea and China working together towards common goals.

The third summit: Bangkok

If Trump and Kim can find their way back to the negotiating table, Thailand is in a strong position to host their third summit. Bangkok has a long history of hosting high-level negotiations. Choosing the Thai capital as venue would be a clear signal that the US wants to remain highly engagedwith Southeast Asia and is serious about its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

With the newly elected government, Thailand is well-placed to play a more proactive role in the search for peace in the Korean peninsula. 

Chaiyong Satjitpanon is former Thai ambassador to the United States and to South Korea.

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