1. How will Asia’s regional powers — South Korea, Japan and China — react to the outcome of the summit?
John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House
South Korea’s President Moon will be bitterly disappointed by the Hanoi outcome, having invested so much political capital at home and abroad in wooing both the North Koreans and Donald Trump. With the South Korean economy in the doldrums and South Korean public opinion less swayed by the spectacle and novelty of the second Trump-Kim meeting, Moon, as a de facto one-term president, cannot afford to see any flagging of the momentum behind the peace process.
His opinion poll ratings are falling and already the main opposition Liberty Korea Party has attacked him for being overly optimistic and naive. Older, conservative voters remain suspicious of the North, while progressive opinion is irritated by any appearance that South Korea’s interests are being marginalised and managed by its senior, and at times condescending US ally. Expect the Blue House to reiterate the importance of continuing dialogue, while looking for avenues to further North-South cooperation — a prospect undoubtedly set back by the latest developments.
Japan is likely to feel relieved that President Trump chose caution rather than impulsively offering the North major concessions and will be pleased that Trump stressed the importance of maintaining the trust of allies and the unity of the UN-sanctions process. Prime Minister Abe will also be reassured that Trump apparently raised the sensitive issue of Japanese abductees in the talks, although a risk-averse Japanese government remains keen to avoid any abrupt return to “fire and fury” given the real and present strategic threat that North Korea poses to Japan — hence Abe’s public statement of support for Trump’s focus on continuing negotiations and his own public willingness to meet face to face with Kim.
China will be disappointed by the failure of the talks and keen to ensure a disappointed North Korea does not revert to a more hard line posture (a possibility Kim hinted at in his 2019 New Year’s address if economic sanctions continued). But Beijing’s leverage with the North is limited and the Chinese are more likely to use persuasion rather than pressure to encourage both the Americans and the North Koreans to continue their dialogue.
Chinese policymakers (as others in the region) may worry about Trump’s ability to remain focused and engage strategically with North Korea given the US president’s domestic difficulties and his range of competing foreign policy challenges (Venezuela, Iran, and the India-Pakistan Kashmir conflict).
Kim reportedly sent his senior adviser, Kim Yong-chol to brief the Chinese leadership on the failure of the Hanoi talks, and Beijing will be hoping that close North Korea-China coordination continues, and that North Korea does not shift towards a more aggressive or unilateralist posture.