The Next Stage of the Korean Peace Process

Why Seoul Remains Optimistic After Hanoi

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump talk during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, February 2019 KCNA via REUTERS

When the U.S.–North Korean summit in Hanoi ended early, with no agreement whatsoever, many South Koreans were shocked. The disappointing conclusion shook the public’s faith in summit diplomacy and undermined Seoul’s efforts to foster parallel processes: for denuclearizing North Korea, building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and fostering inter-Korean economic cooperation. In short, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s strategy for bettering relations among Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang after the summit was shattered.

The summit may have failed, but Seoul observed several encouraging signs. There was neither acrimony nor mutual recrimination at the summit, nor a sudden escalation of military tension in its wake. Considering Pyongyang’s past behavior, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s restraint was unusual. U.S. President Donald Trump’s response was also encouraging. He did not tweet anything inflammatory about Pyongyang in the summit’s wake. Nor did he suggest new sanctions or the renewal of U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises. On the contrary, he expressed his unwavering trust in Kim and his commitment to continuing the dialogue even though the summit didn’t end as he had hoped.

Moreover, if the Singapore declaration could be criticized as producing nothing more than a joint shopping list of hopes, the Hanoi summit at least made clear each side’s concrete and specific demands. For Washington, it was the final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) by Pyongyang. North Korea was also specific in its demands. As Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho elaborated at a midnight press conference after the summit was over, Pyongyang offered to dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon under the observation and verification of the United States in exchange for partial lifting of five UN Security Council sanction resolutions imposed since 2016. It was rare for North Korea to put forth such a specific proposal.

The Moon government sees such moves by both parties as positive signs. It believes that the Hanoi summit was only a temporary setback

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