On February 27th and 28th, President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. This was only the second meeting ever held between the heads of the two nations, which drew just as much controversy as the first, held in June of 2018 in Singapore. Trump’s foreign policy approach to North Korea and his comments about its “Supreme Leader” have prompted criticism from across the political spectrum due to a tense history between the two countries. Unlike talks in Singapore, Hanoi ended abruptly with no progress made toward either denuclearization of North Korea or ending sanctions imparted against them on behalf of the US. This anticlimax– like so many of this presidential administration’s actions– was met with confusion. Pictures of a set dining table for a hastily cancelled diplomatic lunch circulated on the internet at the same time that Trump claimed his tact was deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize. If this news cycle felt strange, it’s because it was. How did we go from decades of nuclear war threats to “Rocket Man” tweets and the apparent bromance between a US president and a dictator?
The Korean war that took place in the 1940s into the 1950s is considered by many to be the beginning of the Cold War between the US and Russia. During this period, the two powers used the Koreas– the North supported by the Soviet Union and China, and the South backed by the US and UN member-states– as proxies to fight each other. Korean civilians on both sides suffered greatly. During this time, hatred of the US was sowed in North Korea through propaganda that highlighted the devastating bombing of its cities and separation of families by a heavily militarized border along the south. In 1953 the fighting concluded in a stalemate.
Both North Korea and South Korea were officially admitted to the UN General Assembly in 1991. From the ceasefire in 1953 until this point, tensions remained on the Korean peninsula, but both countries focused on rebuilding and increasing industrial output with aid from their respective allies. However, efforts by North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal capable of countering a hypothetical US attack created a new and dangerous source of friction.
In 1994, North Korea signed an agreement in which they promised not to produce nuclear weapons in return for a normalized relationship with the US. It was during this time that they lost the Soviet Union and China as allies, which left them vulnerable. During the Clinton Administration, the US sent food and energy aid in response to famine that plagued the country, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But relations once again soured when the Bush Administration expressed skepticism that North Korea was adhering to the 1994 deal, and in 2002, the US halted energy assistance. It is accepted that North Korea had been continuing their nuclear weapon program in secret, and in 2003, they reportedly admitted to having built a nuclear weapon.
By 2005, talks between the US, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China produced another agreement in which North Korea again promised to halt its nuclear weapon development and accept oversight. In return, the other five countries would offer fuel aid and engage in discussion of giving North Korea access to light-water nuclear reactors for the purpose of developing nuclear energy capabilities. Only a year later, North Korea tested seven ballistic missiles. The North Korean regime was reportedly frustrated by lack of progress on the nuclear energy part of the 2005 deal and the targeting of their financial assets by the US.
Throughout the years since, North Korea has continued to produce and test nuclear weapons, blaming the US for antagonization and harsh sanctions. Tension came to a head under the Obama administration when the Kim Jong-un regime attempted to launch a rocket into space in February. That test failed, but later in the year, another test succeeded in putting an object into space that might be capable of carrying a warhead to California. The US and the UN continued to exert pressure in response, stopping food aid and halting assets.
In 2017, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and what is reported to have been a hydrogen bomb. Trump and Kim exchanged aggressive threats until in 2018, North Korea extended an invitation to discuss a new agreement. Trump accepted in early May, and the Singapore summit was planned. Aggressive comments from officials of both countries cast doubt that the meeting would be carried out, and at one point, Trump officially cancelled the summit. In June, it was announced that the summit was back on after a North Korean diplomat visited the White House.
In Singapore, the leaders reached an agreement that was similar to those that had been put in place (and ultimately failed) in 1994 and 2005. It was a historic event though, as no US president had ever met in person with a North Korean leader. Both men spoke positively of their meeting and of their countries’ potential relationship moving forward. For this, Trump was criticized, as North Korea has committed atrocious human rights abuses. Citizens there are harshly policed by the state and either sent to labor camps or executed if found guilty of varying crimes. North Korea is ranked last in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Its people are monitored and indoctrinated in complete and almost-religious loyalty to the state. In 2016, American citizen Otto Warmbier was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign. Though he was eventually released, he died soon after returning home under unusual conditions. It is believed that he was tortured.
Though the conclusion of the 2018 Hanoi summit was abrupt and fruitless, it is seemingly no more significant than any event that has taken place in the cyclically bad and tentatively-okay relationship between the US and North Korea. President Trump has not solved a diplomatic problem that has eluded leaders for decades– he has simply set a more visible stage upon which it will continue to play out among its two strong-men leads.