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The Hanoi Summit and its consequences

The Hanoi Summit and its consequences
Elena Gai

On 27-28 February a second bilateral meeting between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un took place in Hanoi. The high-level meeting followed a first historic summit in Singapore in June 2018, at which a joint statement formalized three major principles to further shape US-North Korean relations: the normalization of bilateral relations, the establishment of a permanent peace regime, and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In addition, President Trump announced the suspension of joint US-South Korean military exercises for the remainder of 2018.

In a parallel process, in September 2018, a high-level meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un took place in Pyongyang. A declaration containing measures to ease tensions and build confidence between the two Koreas was signed, which included joint demining operations, establishing a no-fly zone, demolishing 20 guard posts in the demilitarized zone and implementing some economic cooperation measures. 

Despite these positive steps, there was a lack of progress on the agreed terms of the joint statement agreed in Singapore. However, it was still a surprise when the meeting in Hanoi ended abruptly without joint declarations or signed documents. While details of the discussions between Pyongyang and Washington remain undisclosed, the US National Security Advisor affirmed that the North Korean offer represented “a very limited concession”. Reuters, after having seen an official US document, reported that, in order to take forward the commitment to ‘complete denuclearization’ of North Korea, Washington had requested Pyongyang “to provide a detailed declaration of its nuclear program and full access to U.S. and international inspectors; to halt all related activities and construction of any new facilities; to eliminate all nuclear infrastructure; and to transition all nuclear program scientists and technicians to commercial activities”. North Korea’s apparent rejection of this request led to the impasse and collapse of the summit.

According to subsequent comments from both sides, it appears as if the stalemate also stemmed from disagreement over sanctions relief for five UN Security Council sanction resolutions passed in 2016 and 2017. The sanctions have been severely damaging the North Korean economy, and Pyongyang was expecting some of them to be lifted in exchange for disabling the Yongbyong nuclear facility. 

The construction of the Yongbyong Nuclear Scientific Research Centre, which has always been at the core of North Korea’s nuclear research, started in 1961, following a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. The site includes an A IRT-2000 research reactor, a 5MWe reactor and 50 MWe reactor, a 25-30 light water reactor still under construction, uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities, a radiochemistry laboratory and three waste storage facilities.

The 5MWe reactor is central to North Korea’s plutonium production. It is a graphite-moderated and gas-cooled reactor, similar in technology to the UK’s Calder Hall reactor. It was finished in 1986 and IAEA inspectors started their activities after Pyongyang ratified its safeguards agreement in 1992. Since then, the IAEA has acknowledged discrepancies that eventually led Pyongyang to abandon the NPT in 2003. As a recent report on North Korea’s nuclear programme by Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation pointed out, “the spent fuel generated during reactor operations from the summer of 2016 to early 2018 appears to have been reprocessed beginning in May to separate an estimated 5 to 8kg weapon-grade plutonium”. Nevertheless, commercial satellite imagery collected by 38North from 11 and 21 February 2019 shows no indication that the reactor is still currently operating. 

Pyongyang’s pledge to “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyong area” would deeply constrain the country’s nuclear programme, by halting the main source of its plutonium production. However, many experts believe that North Korea has gradually reduced its reliance on plutonium production in favour of uranium enrichment. According to US intelligence, there are at least two undeclared enrichment facilities outside of Yongbyong. The Middlebury Institute located one of them in Kangson.

It is difficult to predict the next steps by either side. According to some analysts, North Korea started rebuilding key facilities at the satellite launch facility of Tongchang-ri and at the ICBM-related site of Sanum-dong, and completed restoration work on the key long range rocket launch site in Doungchang-ri. These activities may represent a return to provocative North Korean actions. For the United States, an attempt to reinvigorate diplomatic dialogue would appear to be a plausible path, but the current delay in establishing a negotiating process at working group level to advance the goal of denuclearization suggests that the impasse is unlikely to be broken any time soon.