With both sides failing to reach an agreement in Hanoi, pressure is increasing on US President Donald Trump to seal the deal. Kim Jong Un has room to maneuver — and for that, he has China to thank, says Frank Sieren.
Donald Trump hadn't anticipated this outcome. Ahead of this week's much-publicized second summit between the United States and North Korea in Vietnam, the US president said he was in "no rush" to push leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear program, but added he wouldn't be surprised if they could work things out. Afterward, Trump said the US "had to walk away" from the talks, but assured the assembled media that both sides would continue a dialogue and that the atmosphere remained "very good, very friendly."
And yet, Trump had hoped to return to Washington with a signed peace treaty, formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean War, and a concrete denuclearization agreement. Going into the talks, he touted North Korea's economic potential and reiterated his belief that the state could become "an economic powerhouse" if it abandoned its nuclear weapons.
No chance meeting
The location of the meeting, the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, wasn't chosen at random. The communist state has one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. Many companies, including Samsung, Nike and Adidas, have chosen the Southeast Asian nation to produce their goods for the global market. McDonald's and Starbucks are a familiar part of the urban landscape.
Trump shares a similar vision for North Korea, which has struggled under UN sanctions since 1996 over its nuclear program. The president has said there is "tremendous economic potential" for his "friend Kim Jong Un" — and the US would love to help itself to a big slice of that pie. North Korea is a country rich with natural resources and cheap labor, though infrastructure remains weak. The potential to do business here is, to use one of Trump's favorite words, huge.
Kim is the first North Korean leader to have recognized this potential. Since taking power in 2011, he has reformed the economy and opened 13 development zones to attract foreign investment. He has committed to improving living standards, and developing a strong middle class that will follow his rules.
Kim knows that if his regime is to survive, the international sanctions need to be lifted. And he made it clear at the summit in Hanoi that he wasn't prepared to be the mouse and let himself be batted around by the American cat. He has room to maneuver in the talks with the US, and that's not only because of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. He also has China to thank.
Beijing, like Washington, has also called for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — but it doesn't want to risk destabilizing North Korea. Almost all of the trade that manages to make its way into the Hermit Kingdom runs through China. And despite the strict sanctions, trade hasn't slowed. At least, not enough to risk North Korea's collapse — or, for that matter, to annoy Washington.
Beijing has clearly found the right balance. In Hanoi, Trump described China's role as "very helpful," calling Beijing's role "bigger than most people know." He described President Xi Jinping as a "great leader," before adding:
"Could he be a little more helpful? Probably."
No unification without China
Trump knows it makes little sense to stand up to China on this issue. In the past 10 months, Kim and Xi have met four times. Before Trump's rapprochement with North Korea and his trade war with China, the two state leaders had never met in person. Clearly, there will be no agreement between North Korea and the US without a concession to Chinese interests.
The fact that Trump preferred to walk away from the talks without an agreement is a sign he's interested in finding a long-lasting, stable agreement that will allow him to go down in history. He made that quite clear at his final press conference, pointing out that he had gone much further than his predecessors: "Many presidents should have done this before me, and nobody did. So we're doing it."
A long-term solution would also be in China's best interest. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang expressed understanding about the fact the two sides had failed to come to an agreement: "China welcomes that both the DPRK [North Korea — Editor's note] and the US expressed their willingness to maintain contact and continue dialogue after the Trump-Kim summit."
Before the summit, Lu had said the two sides should "meet halfway." China knows that even if Trump is able to broker an agreement, in the long term this will mean Washington has lost its influence. And that it will no longer be necessary to station US troops in South Korea. This, of course, would be good news for China.
Frank Sieren has lived in China for more than 25 years.