On April 12, 2019, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un finally uttered publicly he was open to a third summit with US President Donald J Trump. Trump himself does not appear to rule out the possibility of a third summit. This utterance may have relieved pro-talks stakeholders who are keen on defusing the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. It also opens the opportunities for those who are in favor of the talks to resume the momentum for a third summit.
It probably excited South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well, who is keen on becoming a mediator for the third round of talks, even formally sitting at the table with the other stakeholders. He continues the hard work of mediating between the two parties. Taking some flak for the failure of the second round of talks in Hanoi, Moon is keen to restart the process.
The number of players appears to have widened. First, Kim had a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin just before Putin’s formal visit to Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum. Putin made a stop at the Russian Far East, which created an appropriate opportunity for the meeting to happen. Kim’s armored train arrived in Russia and its stop at the Vladivostok train station was greeted with high level diplomatic protocol and ceremonial niceties. This created an opportunity for North Korean official photographers and filming crew to curate the event for their propaganda and news dissemination units.
The Russian President was frank in his dialogue with the North Korean leader. Putin welcomed Kim to Russia, despite the fact that he had to travel several time zones to the Russian Far East to make this meeting possible and despite possible fatigue from travelling. This meeting was carefully planned, choreographed and put together by the stakeholders involved. The planning started especially after the Russian Interior Minister visited Pyongyang, a closely watched event that was a prelude of Russo-North Korean talks.
The North Koreans may have believed that pulling in Russia may provide them with some form of bargaining leverage vis-a-vis the Americans and some say even the Chinese as well. Russian backing may create the image that Pyongyang has alternative powers to turn to, something the North Korean leader mentioned during his New Year address. Many interpreted his idea of an “alternative path” to mean the Chinese but others consider the meaning to include Russian involvement as well. Russia certainly has the military muscles, technologies, energy resources and geopolitical power to provide some form of support if they choose to provide it.
However, in realistic pragmatic terms, some do note that the Chinese provide the overwhelmingly dominant economic and energy provision support to the North Koreans in humanitarian terms and the Russians may potentially pale in comparison in such material support. Others argue it is not so much a Russo-Chinese competition but one in which the Russian president emerges as a winner overall, because when Putin emerged from the talks, he specifically told the international media that Kim had a message for him to pass on to the Americans.
The Russian President reiterated he would do so. And at the same time, Putin also mentioned that he would update both the Americans and the Chinese about his dialogue with Kim, adding that Russia has no secret agenda to hide. Russia therefore was able to utilize this moment for its intermediary diplomacy between the North Koreans, Chinese and Americans. Whether the role is sustainable remains to be seen.
The Hanoi meeting might have ended with the US walkout but both sides emerged from the talks with a better idea of each other’s bottom line.
There were mixed international readings about this statement. Some observers analyzed it from an optimistic perspective — that this statement could effectively herald Putin and Russia as strong entrants into the North Korean denuclearization issue. Some believe that this can be a positive role in facilitating denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Other skeptical analysts warn of possible Russian intervention driving a wedge between American and North Korean negotiators. Fears of North Korean scuttling the talks lurk in the background, and fears of Kim’s emotive and cognitive reactions to the failed talks were also subjects of media speculation. There were unconfirmed reports of a handful of foreign affairs officials executed in Pyongyang due to the failed outcome of the Hanoi talks.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang appears to be calm for now. They have not resumed nuclear testing or testing of longer range missiles. Kim has overseen the testing of shorter range missiles and rocket projectiles which made international news, but does not elicit as much alarm and fear as long range missiles flying over the Japanese airspace of Hokkaido. In the post-Hanoi talk period, there were also speculations of North Korean testing of new tactical weapons.
But, for now, things appear to be going through a quiet respite as the stakeholders to the denuclearization talks seek new options for the way forward. Pyongyang is also exercising some self-restraint to maintain the personal rapport between Kim and Trump despite the failed outcome of the Hanoi talks. Pyongyang had only briefly released statements critical of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but beyond that, it has kept inflammatory statements under control.
Meanwhile, China has remained consistent in encouraging the talks to continue in the interest of peace and Tokyo is keen to have a leadership summit with Pyongyang as well. Tokyo has the additional agenda of seeking more exchanges of talks on the abductee issue. The international community has also seen the closure of the Kim Jong-nam assassination case, as the last detained participant of Vietnamese nationality was released after her Indonesian counterpart walked out of prison due to appeals from the Indonesian authorities. This brings a diplomatic closure to the episode.
In the final analysis, there were some successes in the Hanoi summit. Kim walked away from the Hanoi summit with image enhancement, as he followed the founding leader Kim Il-sung’s steps of travelling through China by rail and then entering Vietnam. Vietnamese red carpet treatment also added to Kim’s prestige for propaganda and media dissemination in Pyongyang.
Kim was also able to observe some essence of Vietnamese doi moi economic reforms as a possible future model for North Korean development. This adds on to the other potential Chinese, Singaporean and South Korean models of development. Similarly, the visit to Russia also provides some image branding of a new North Korean leader who is mobile and meeting important members of the international community. After all, he has traveled on long distance rail, flown on a private jet to Russia and flew an airliner to and fro Singapore.
In addition, the Hanoi meeting might have ended with the US walkout but both sides emerged from the talks with a better idea of each other’s bottom line. Pyongyang appeared to offer the dismantling of Yongbyon nuclear facilities as a way to obtain sanctions relief while the Americans had made clear that they are keen on additional facilities beyond Yongbyon which President Trump had personally shown Kim. The clearer positions may allow both parties to shape up their respective national priorities before the third summit, if it happens at all.