Albeit paved with good intentions, it has turned out to be a bumpy road from Singapore to Hanoi. For all the grandstanding at the previous night’s dinner table, Thursday’s summit between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was a nonstarter. Going by the former’s own admission, the second summit ~ between the heads of two traditional adversaries ~ has floundered on the rock of sanctions. “It was about the sanctions basically,” President Trump told a press conference in Hanoi. “They wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that; sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.” His counterpart in Pyongyang appears to have adopted a thus far-and-no further approach. He did offer to dismantle certain parts of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, including the Youngbyon nuclear complex, but was not prepared to destroy other parts of the programme, including covert uranium plants. It turned out to be an exercise in competitive obduracy; while Kim shrilled for all sanctions to be lifted at the Vietnam summit itself, no less resolute was Trump who asserted that he was “willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all the sanctions for that.” In the net, the confabulations at Hanoi’s high table registered little or no forward movement… so very unlike the Singapore round last June. For all the hopeful anticipation, the exercise in summitry has come a cropper. The failure of the Vietnam round reaffirms that there is no common ground on the fundamentals of the respective geostrategies. Small wonder that the expected joint statement and the signing ceremony were both cancelled at short notice. The two glum-faced Presidents are said to have left the summit venue and returned to their separate hotels.
The written statement of Sarah Sanders, the White House spokesperson, was a feeble attempt at obfuscation. “The two leaders discussed various ways to advance denuclearization and economic driven concepts. No agreement was reached at this time, but their respective teams look forward to meeting in the future.” Suffice it to register that Trump has ruled out a third summit despite Kim’s assurance that North Korea would continue to hold off on nuclear and missile tests. Signs of trouble at the second Trump-Kim summit appeared at the threshold on Thursday when Trump played down expectations of any kind of agreement, saying the focus ought to be on longer term relations between the two leaders and the two countries. The mood of both leaders at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel, the venue, was largely sombre even though both played to the domestic gallery by hoping for better ties. It will be hard to escape the conclusion that both leaders were mentally prepared for a fizzle in Hanoi. And so it was.