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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 12 New Delhi March 9, 2019

Hanoi Summit on North Korea’s Nuclear Issue: Implications and Opportunities

Monday 11 March 2019

by Sudhakar Vaddi

As far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned, one can declare war overnight but can’t declare peace and it can only be built through the gradual process of mutual trust among the parties. The second summit at Hanoi (Vietnam) on February 28, 2019 between the United States (US) and North Korea [officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)] not surprisingly falls under this category. At the summit, though US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to reach an agreement on denuclearisation, the meeting and goodwill gesture shown by the two leaders displayed advancement in their high-wire diplomacy. The first North Korea-US summit was held in Singapore in June 2018 where President Trump and Mr Kim agreed for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. Subsequently, the US suspended the annual joint naval exercises with South Korea by saying those were highly ‘provocative and expensive’. As a reciprocal action, North Korea has not made any military provocation during this period and more than one year has passed since North Korea conducted its last missile test in November 2017. It also dismantled some of its missile and nuclear facilities including The Sohae satellite launch station.1

Nuclear Bargain

During the Hanoi summit, the US demanded irreversible steps to scrap North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, including dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Since North Korea has been pushed into a corner by the sanctions for its previous actions, during the summit, easing of the sanctions was given a top priority for Pyongyang. In fact, recently North Korea’s request for humanitarian assistance from the United Nations to feed its people is a reflection of the grave situation of the impoverished country.2 Its external trade volume fell significantly with the exports ban on coal, steel, fisheries and textile products. As a result, the entire industrial production in North Korea has crashed. Further, due to the workers ban under the United Nations (UN) resolution-2397, other nations, including its trusted ally China, sent back tens of thousands of North Korean workers home, thus eventually cutting off another key source of hard currency for North Korea.3 At the summit, both parties expressed their points of concern but could not conclude any agreement this time. They thereby left an opportunity for the continuation of the dialogue. Perhaps, the Trump Administration is calculating that a nuclear agreement with North Korea could help to boost the President’s chances for re-election in 2020. If this is true, then some tangible outcome may be expected before the US presidential elections next year.

 The point at this juncture is whether the international community or Washington can trust North Korea’s efforts or not. Due to the severity of the imposed sanctions, factories have closed and military units are resorting to charcoal-engine vehicles and ox-driven carts for transport.4 Due to the existing economic turmoil, North Korea is seeking to ease some of the economic sanctions which would affect the ordinary people’s economy and livelihood. Pyongyang has been clear about what exactly it wants. It will not unilaterally disarm unless it receives something from Washington. They want a process in stages where they give a little and get something in return. It means that right now Pyongyang feels that it has done enough to warrant relief from sanctions. However, the US has also been clear on its stand by stating that sanctions relief would be possible only on the ground of “complete denuclearisation”. President Trump has been under huge pressure at home, with his opponents accusing him of selling away the massive US strategic advantage vis-à-vis North Korea in exchange for worthless concessions.

Past Experience

In the past, the goal of the outside actors, particularly the US, was somehow to bring North Korea to the negotiation table and set an agenda for North Korea’s denuclearissation process. In fact, Washington exerted the policy of “maximum pressure” by imposing severe economic sanctions on Pyongyang through the UN. However, the confidence-building measures initiated by North Korea, including scrapping of a few nuclear and missile facilities and the ongoing inter-Korean rapprochement process, were unable to impress the conventional wisdom and hardliners of the US and they are still doubting the sincerity of the North Korean regime. However, by analysing the past experience it is seen that Pyongyang has a positive reciprocal track record with Washington. On September 27, 1991 President George H.W. Bush announced the removal of all US Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) from South Korea. Within a month, North Korea halted the reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium.5 In early 1992, President Bush announced the suspension of the annual Team Spirit joint military exercises. That very day, a DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesman announced its intention to sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA.6 This sequence of events in the past strongly suggests North Korea’s willingness to accommodate the US on verification in return for US steps to end enmity through reciprocity.


Easing of some sanctions which are affecting the livelihood of North Koreans is an urgent point of need. It motivates the North Korean leadership for the denuclearisation process to move forward. Pyongyang has called for a step-by-step model, matching each denuclearisation act to a specific concession, which would be implemented over a longer timeline to ensure the stability of the denuclearisation process in the Korean Peninsula. We can’t overlook that it took several decades for the US to accept North Korea as a negotiating partner and Pyongyang’s ability to come up with a tangible solution to the nuclear crises in the region. In this perspective, the ongoing rapprochement formula would definitely yield a substantial outcome in the near future and certainly, the US holds the key to moving the peace process forward.


1. It is believed that the Sohae satellite launching site played an important role in the development of technologies for the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile programme. Prior to this move, Pyongyang also dismantled its only known nuclear test site at Punggyeri in front of the world media in the month of May 2018.

2. The UN says North Korea has asked for help on food shortage, The Japan Times, February 22, 2018, at (Accessed on February 23, 2018.)

3. The UN Resolution on North Korea 2017, (accessed on December 4, 2018).

4. Choe Sang-Hun, ‘Sanctions Are Hurting North Korea. Can They Make Kim Give In?’, New York Times, April 20, 2018, (Accessed on February 2 2019.)

5. Sang-Hyun Lee, “Bush’s Second-Term Korea Policy: Prospects and Options for South Korea”, East Asian Review, Vol 16, No. 4, 2004, p.16

6. The US-North Korea Agreed Framework at a Glance,, (Accessed on January 30, 2019).

Dr Sudhakar Vaddi is an Assistant Professor, GD Goenka University, Gurugram (Haryana).

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