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Commentary: The Trump-Kim bromance: is the honeymoon over?

04 Mar Commentary: The Trump-Kim bromance: is the honeymoon over?

By Nicholas Fang and Aaron Choo
For The Business Times

Following the blossoming of the historic bromance between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that took place on the idyllic resort island of Sentosa in Singapore last year, it now appears that the honeymoon period is over, and reality has hit hard.

The second meeting between the US and North Korean leaders in Hanoi ended abruptly on Thursday, with no agreement reached between the two sides after a morning of closed-door discussions.

A planned working lunch was cut suddenly, and President Trump brought forward his press conference, where he declared that he had decided to walk out due to North Korea’s insistence on the lifting of all sanctions currently placed on it.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has given a different account, saying Mr Kim was “realistic” and only asked for partial sanctions relief. While both sides have refrained from outright finger-pointing, the contradiction in their stories is telling.

The backdrop to the two summits may have provided some indication as to how the meetings eventually turned out. The man-made beauty of Sentosa and its scenic made-for-tourists resorts and beaches seemed the right setting for a meeting light in substance, and heavy in photo opportunities. By that same token, the bustling Vietnamese capital, which is emblematic of the astounding economic growth and development of the country, would suggest that more concrete progress would be forthcoming from the second meeting.

Tangible deliverables

Indeed, in the buildup to the summit in Hanoi, there was expectations that we would see more tangible deliverables, ranging from the official end to the Korean War, setting up of liaison offices in each country, a pledge to destroy the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyun, and even a partial lifting of sanctions.

Instead, it appeared that, despite declaring that he “fell in love” with the North Korean leader in Singapore, President Trump appears to have turned a cold shoulder to Kim Jong Un, with no promise of a third meeting in sight.

Winners and losers

Speculation has been rife over the various factors that could have come into play and led to the abrupt ending in Hanoi.

Much has been made of President Trump’s domestic distractions, with his former attorney Michael Cohen spilling the beans before Congress on some allegedly nefarious dealings between him and his ex-boss.

The US is also dealing with other issues around the world, in places such as Venezuela and the Middle East, to say nothing of brewing military tensions between India and Pakistan.

It’s not clear if these distractions played a role, or if, as some observers have speculated, Kim Jong Un got a full taste of the Trump art of the deal.

Some say that there was already a hint of this two weeks before the Singapore summit in 2018, when the meeting was “called off” abruptly by the US, before being reinstated shortly after, in what some described as gamesmanship between the two leaders.

What is clear however is that the sudden ending took most parties by surprise, and it is not immediately apparent who the real winners and losers of this encounter will be.

Mr Trump would have been hoping for a foreign relations triumph that would shift media attention away from the Cohen testimony in Congress. At the same time, he would be wary not to push too hard for a US “win” that could jeopardise any chance for a deal that he could point to ahead of his bid for re-election in 2020.

As such, the no-deal summit would seem to provide more fuel for his detractors, than ammunition for him to use to burnish his administration’s achievements. President Trump declared that he is in no rush and would rather do things right rather than fast, and this is laudable if it results in a sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula in the long term. But it remains to be seen how this will play out for him politically in the months ahead.

Kim Jong Un on the other hand can add another notch to his growing reputation as an international statesman, with yet another new country visited, another audience with the leader of a superpower, and the ability to return home on his train without having conceded anything in terms of denuclearisation.

That being said, there was speculation among observers of North Korea that there had been genuine expectations of a more concrete agreement in Hanoi, and that the turnaround by President Trump had come as a surprise to many in the North Korean delegation.

The abortive Hanoi summit also comes as an inconveniently timed blow to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was set to unveil new plans for inter-Korean economic cooperation at a ceremony on Friday. Mr Moon has been one of the strongest advocates for easing sanctions against North Korea, and there now seems to be little chance of sanctions relief in the near term.

However, it does appear that South Korea’s role as an intermediary between the US and North Korea will remain relevant and potentially grow in importance in the wake of the latest hitch in the negotiations.

Vietnam, Singapore, and other Asean countries have also been left disappointed. While neither Vietnam nor Singapore was a party in the negotiations, both countries have served as hosts. Vietnam would have been pleased to be associated with a successful summit, but the actual outcome has been anti-climatic. Even the shine of last year’s Singapore summit could be seen to have faded somewhat in the wake of Hanoi.

However, some may be, if not pleased, then at least far more sanguine about this outcome. In the US, both Republican hawks and Mr Trump’s Democrat opponents were wary about the prospect of too many concessions being given to North Korea.

In their eyes, no deal is better than a bad one. China, Japan, and Russia, all long-time players in the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation process, have also expressed various reservations about the apparently close relationship between Mr Trump and Mr Kim. It will now be interesting to see how these countries react to the seemingly cooling ties between the two leaders.

Whither the bromance?

If Singapore represented the first date in the Trump-Kim bromance, then it was enough for vague promises and phone numbers to have been exchanged. In Hanoi, they were obliged to talk about the details of their relationship: setting boundaries and determining what each partner wants. Such discussions are much more complex.

Will there be a breakup, or will the US and North Korea be able to take their relationship to the next level? Much depends on whether the US and North Korea will indeed be continuing talks at the working level. For the moment, both parties have insisted they want to keep the process going. The mood has not turned hostile, though it is far more subdued.

There is also the question of continuity in negotiations. Mr Trump has stressed that the peace and denuclearisation process with North Korea is a long-term endeavour, and rightly so.

However, politics can be fickle, and Mr Trump faces a looming election battle in 2020. He himself has worked to actively dismantle much of what his predecessor achieved. Even if the bromance is not over, it remains to be seen if a future US leader will file for divorce in 2020 and beyond.

The writers are from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Nicholas Fang is director of security and global affairs, and Aaron Choo is assistant director of international affairs and digital media. This commentary was first published in The Business Times on 2 March 2019.