US-North Korea nuclear summit ended without deal

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22


The world’s eyes were on the nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States on Thursday, Feb. 28, expecting a disarmament deal between the two countries. Despite expectations, the talks were inconclusive and ended before a deal was reached.

Before heading off from Hanoi, Vietnam, where the summit was held, President Donald Trump said in a news conference that North Korean President Kim Jong-un made the offer to “dismantle all of the Yongbyon complexes” — the central research and production facilities of the country’s nuclear program — but the offer did not extend to other sectors of the program. Trump claimed that Jong-un asked for a complete lift of all U.S. sanctions in return.

“It was about the sanctions […] basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that,” President Trump said, according to the New York Times.

Later, at a midnight press conference in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho disputed this claim, saying that Pyongyang “had only demanded partial sanctions relief in return for closing Yongbyon,” the Guardian reported.

During Thursday’s negotiations, the focus was the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, a site that produces materials for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The 1961 construction of the site in 1961 marked the start of North Korea’s nuclear program. Yongbyon contains a five-megawatt reactor, which produces the bulk of the plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weaponry. The reactor has been shut down once previously, as the state signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994.

In February of 2003, North Korea reactivated the fivemegawatt reactor as it withdrew from the NPT. Under heavy global pressure, the country has gone back and forth in its nuclear advancement.

In early 2016 international tensions heightened drastically when North Korea claimed to have successfully developed miniature nuclear warheads to fit ballistic missiles. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported in mid-2017 that these missiles were capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. The latest model, Hwasong-15, peaking at an estimated altitude of 4,500 km with a maximum range of 13,000 km, would be capable of reaching all of the continental U.S.

The death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was imprisoned upon a visit to North Korea and sent back to the U.S. in a critical medical state in 2017, raised tensions even further.

Alarmed by North Korea’s multiple experiments with nuclear missiles, Trump issued an executive order in September of 2017 to impose an ultimate economic sanction on North Korea, cutting all U.S. corporate, organization and individual business activities with the country.

Aircraft and ships, which have conducted transfers with North Korean ships upon entering the country, were banned for 180 days post-sanctions from entering the United States. Later in the month, North Korean nationals were barred from entering the United States.

The U.S. sanctions were met with a global effort to pressure North Korea. A number of global powers including China, South Korea, Japan, the European Union and Australia have also expanded their sanctions on the country. In July of 2018 during a summit in Brussels, all 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders signed a declaration which called on members to maintain pressure on North Korea.

Facing tightened economic pressure, Jong-un agreed to a diplomatic talk with the U.S. in early 2018. Held in Singapore on June 12, 2018, the talk ended with only a promise from the North Korean leader “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” with all the specific steps towards complete denuclearization left undefined, Bloomberg reported.

During the 2018 talk, North Korea insisted that “U.S. weapons must go at the same time, or it would be left vulnerable to attack,” according to Bloomberg. In the event of denuclearization, Jong-un wanted “corresponding measures” from the U.S. — which the Washington Post described as “immediate rewards, for any steps his regime makes.”

The Hanoi summit, which was expected to yield constructive progress, ended in a disappointing no-deal outcome. However, Andrew Reiter, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Mount Holyoke College, said that he was not surprised.

“It is no news here,” Reiter said. He explained that, because North Korea wanted sanctions eased before its own denuclearization and the U.S. demanded denuclearization before sanctions relief, the negotiation is stuck at a stagnant point. Reiter expects the status quo to remain for a long time.

“North Korea wants the U.S. to remove sanctions before it gives up its nuclear weapons; the U.S. wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons before it removes sanctions,” Reiter explained. “One side would have to give in and it would not make sense for either side to do so.”

A day after the inconclusive negotiations in Hanoi, Jong-un said that North Korea is willing to reboot denuclearization talks with President Trump in the near future. Meanwhile, North Korea has since pledged to maintain a halt on nuclear and ballistic missile tests, according to the North Korean Report.

Some predict that North Korea may break the deadlock first, as Jong-un may find himself under domestic pressure as U.S. sanctions continue to affect the national economy. However, until a new talk is scheduled, there will be no certain prospect of reconciliation on this matter.