Sunday 21 April 2019

'Personal rapport is not enough' to bridge gaps in 'complex problem'

Welcome: Children hold US, North Korean and Vietnamese flags near the hotel holding the summit. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Welcome: Children hold US, North Korean and Vietnamese flags near the hotel holding the summit. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson and Simon Denyer

Two days of soaring rhetoric and over-the-top flattery between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could not bridge the gap on an issue that has plagued US negotiators for months: the lifting of crippling economic sanctions on the impoverished rogue state.

Mr Trump said that North Korea's demand for full sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearisation was the main impediment to reaching an agreement on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic programmes, a centerpiece of the president's foreign policy.

The abrupt conclusion of the talks without a future meeting date or a plan to move forward exposed the vulnerabilities of relying on the personal rapport of Mr Trump and Mr Kim to overcome disputes that faceless negotiators had been stuck on for eight months following the two leaders' first summit in Singapore.

"Good personal rapport is good, but it's not enough to bridge big gaps in the course of one high-level summit," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

The collapse of talks aimed at resolving the most pressing security threat in Asia is a disappointment for the US president, who began his summit with Mr Kim saying he hoped it would be "equal or greater than the first".

It also raises doubts about whether the two sides can regain momentum in a high-stakes negotiation that has yet to achieve results from lower-level diplomats working behind the scenes. In the absence of progress on the diplomatic front, experts worry that tensions could rise on the military front.

In the past several months, lower-level talks have been slow to make progress, as junior North Korean diplomats have lacked the negotiating authority to make concessions, said diplomats familiar with the talks.

As talks broke down, US officials cancelled a planned lunch meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim and notified reporters that there would be no joint statement describing what was agreed upon.

"They weren't close enough to keep talking about it over lunch. How are both negotiating teams going to figure that out?" said John Delury, a Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, referring to the lead US and North Korean negotiators.

During the news conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to sound a note of optimism, saying he hoped the negotiating teams "will get together in the days and weeks ahead and work out. It's a very complex problem".

Beneath the president, the issue has divided his top advisers and America's closest allies, who have tried to push the president in different directions. National Security Adviser John Bolton is a staunch opponent of the talks, who is sceptical of Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea appointed by Mr Trump to negotiate an agreement.

Mr Bolton and like-minded officials at the Treasury Department and Pentagon had expressed concern that Mr Trump was moving too fast in looking to loosen sanctions or agreeing to an end-of-war declaration, according to people familiar with the discussions. Defenders of Mr Biegun - who drives Trump policy on North Korea - said he is a pragmatist and seasoned negotiator who remains clear-eyed about his challenge and privately acknowledges the steep odds of a successful outcome.

Outside the United States, Japanese officials have expressed scepticism about the talks, and are expected to be relieved that the president did not trade sanctions relief for the shutdown of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, an expansive compound that houses the country's uranium-enrichment facilities but does not encompass the entirety of the North's warheads and missile inventory.

But America's other key Asian ally, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, has invested a huge amount of his personal prestige in engagement with North Korea.

He is certain to be enormously disappointed in the breakdown of the talks. (© Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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