The Vietnam Summit: An end to the “fire and fury”?

On February 27, 2019, US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jung Un met at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. Although many hoped that the Vietnam summit would bring some sort of tangible agreement or accord between the two states, the summit was abruptly cut short on its second day- before the delegations could even enjoy a spot of lunch. One can only imagine how eerie it must have been for whoever was tasked with clearing the presidential place setting and returning the unused glasses back into storage that afternoon in the bodiless hotel. Hopefully, they were at least allowed to enjoy some of the untouched foie gras.

International concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been persistent  since the 1950s, when then Chairman Kim Il Sung first started developing North Korea’s domestic nuclear weapons program. Despite various efforts throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the international community has struggled to implement any sort of agreement with North Korea worthy of calming nerves.

In 1985, North Korea ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, committing itself to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapon technology and global cooperation in terms of nuclear energy. In 1994 under the Clinton administration, North Korea and the US signed the Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to freezing nuclear weapon production on the basis that the US would provide concessions in terms of civilian aid. Despite various developments in the intervening period, North Korea announced its exodus from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Hopes rose that the situation would improve in the same year when the Six-Party talks, between China, Japan, the US, North Korea and South Korea, made it seem like a commitment (albeit a limited one) from North Korea to denuclearise was on the cards. In the midst of the negotiations, however, in 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb,which the UN Security Council responded with sanctions. To the disappointment of the international community, in 2009 the Six-Party talks deteriorated. In March 2016, in response to North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons, the UN Security Council imposed further sanctions on the country.

Since its departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and arguably earlier), North Korea’s domestic production of nuclear weapons has been perceived by the international community as one of the most imminent threats to world peace. Indeed, in the autumn of 2017, concerns peaked as it felt increasingly probable that tensions between Trump and Kim would escalate and explode into some sort of dystopian, apocalyptic World War Three. In early September 2017, to the consternation of the international community, Kim Jung Un oversaw North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. This episode was followed by a period of infamously acrimonious rhetoric, in which Trump christened Kim as a “little rocket man” and threatened to wreak “fire and fury” on North Korea. Thankfully though, both leaders agreed to talks, and the muscle-flexing, egotistical episode of impasse was transcended.

Thankfully though, both leaders agreed to talks, and the muscle-flexing, egotistical episode of impasse was transcended.

Despite the continuation of tensions and uncertainties into 2018, Trump and Un agreed to meet in a Singapore summit in June, which, after a last-minute cancellation, was reinstated days later. While the summit was by no means epochal, it did culminate in a Joint Statement between the Trump and Un in which both countries committed to working together towards peace and prosperity, with North Korea iterating a commitment towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Although it is hard to see past Trump’s childish name-calling back in 2017, there is a serious case to be made in favour of his foreign policy dealings with North Korea. Yes, it did look for a moment as though Trump’s impulsive hot headedness might have thrown us deep into the depths of World War Three. Equally, it feels uncomfortable to complement a man who threatened to wreak “fire and fury” on the civilians of any country. Yet Trump’s foreign policy in dealing with North Korea, at least from 2018 onwards, has recognised the most important necessity in today’s multilateral world; for diplomacy to work, dialogue is required. There will be no agreement with North Korea while the seats at the table are empty. Trump’s administration have decided, rather strategically, to fill those seats.

It is easy to unthinkingly oppose Donald Trump and his administration’s policies. Indeed, in most cases, condemnation is due. However, just because it is easy and in vogue to be on one side, does not mean that we are entitled to stop thinking critically. In the case of US-North Korea relations, the Trump administration may have pursued policy that will bring us closer to world peace. As uncomfortable as it feels to say, the Trump administration may actually deserve some credit in this instance.

All that said, it feels distinctly as though Trump has just thrown the one chance he had to prove us all wrong down the drain. Unfortunately, at the most recent summit in Vietnam, negotiations came to an abrupt halt when it became clear that neither side was willing to act without prior concessions. For Trump this is North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization, and for Kim the complete removal sanction. Both leaders have since shared detailed discussions of the talks and the reasons for their disintegration to the press. It remains to be seen what its consequence will be.

However unfortunate it is that the Vietnam Summit was cut short, it is unlikely that it will result in a return to the rhetoric of 2017. Certainly, tensions may rise again, but fear-mongering that current circumstances will bring a return to “fire and fury” are both misplaced and unhelpful. Where, who knows, but there are more tables to be laid and cleared where the US and Kim Jung Un are concerned.

Image credit: US Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam (