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Trump-Kim summit — predictably disappointing outcome

Hao Gui
February 28, 2019

The Kim-Trump meeting in Vietnam came to an end without concrete results. The confidence-building process between North Korea and the US must soon be followed by multilateral talks with other stakeholders, says Hao Gui.

A caricature of a wary Kim and Trump as their summit ends without a deal

Much excitement, no progress — a predictable outcome. It was already clear in advance that the outcome of the Hollywood-style meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would not live up to its political symbolism.

The fact that the two opponents met for talks at all was mainly for domestic political reasons on both sides. Kim wants to prove to his followers that he can force the "capitalist archenemy" to have direct talks on an equal footing. His risky escalation strategy has helped the young politician to appease hard-liners in the party and army and to expand his power.

Donald Trump currently has problems of a very different nature. Michael Cohen, the US president's former lawyer, told Congress about Trump's business relations with Russia while the meeting in Hanoi was taking place. Later this month, special counsel Robert Mueller is expected to present his final report, which, among other things, is supposed to clarify whether Trump is susceptible to blackmail because of his relations with Russia and whether he obstructed justice in regard to these investigations. In view of this threat, a foreign policy success would at least be something.

Read more'No agreement reached' at Trump-Kim summit

An empty meeting

Gui Hao
DW's Hao Gui

Whether North Korea and the US are seriously working towards a peace treaty at all is not clear after this second summit.

Kim already announced through state propaganda that the US was on the brink of economic collapse, that North Korea had brought Washington to its knees militarily, and that the great leader, Kim Jong Un, would show the whole world the path to lasting peace.

All this misses the essential point of dealing with the nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Denuclearization, which would have to be defined and elaborated in detail in the treaty, is the bottom line if there is ever to be reliable security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.

The neighbors' involvement

You can't do this without the neighbors being involved. South Korea, Japan and China have their own security interests. China, the rising regional power, does not want a strong US presence on its doorstep and is arming itself with powerful weapons, for example in the South China Sea. The destabilization of the regime in Pyongyang by a possible US military strike would result in a mass exodus to China. This is what China wants to prevent.

The US allies South Korea and Japan, on the other hand, want a guarantee that North Korea will actually dismantle its nuclear weapons and stop developing intercontinental missiles. Members of the public don't want to hear sirens howling in Seoul and Tokyo city centers anymore just because North Korea launches a missile that could be equipped with nuclear warheads.

Read moreDenuclearization 'must apply to all nations' 

Multilateralism instead of self-promotion

The good news about the meeting between Kim and Trump is that an impending escalation has been eliminated, or at least defused, through direct talks.

But the two showoffs' symbolic politics is not enough. The next step would be for all regional stakeholders — South Korea, Japan and China — to sit down with the US and North Korea and jointly find viable solutions for denuclearization. This is the only way to lay a foundation for lasting peace in the region.