The Second Trump-Kim Summit and its Impact on South Korea

Updated: Mar 23

By Yea Ji Nam

President Kim Jong-un and President Trump meet in Vietnam for a bilateral summit.
Image: Korea Economic Institute

The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without an agreement. Although the two leaders failed to reach a deal, South Koreans view the summit as having made meaningful progress. At the same time, however, the South Korean government is in a difficult situation after the unexpected outcome in Vietnam.

Trump and Kim Jong-un were in Hanoi to discuss two main points: North Korea’s denuclearization and lifting sanctions on North Korea.

Trump wanted Kim to agree to permanently dismantle his nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Both leaders agreed to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” at the Singapore summit, but Trump was expecting to get a better understanding of what this means to Kim in Hanoi. He hoped to achieve North Korean denuclearization not just for the sake of peace on the Korean Peninsula, but for the global community. He also wanted to create a denuclearization roadmap moving forward, open liaison offices between the two countries, and officially end the Korean War in the negotiations.

Kim primarily sought economic sanctions relief from Trump and was prepared to reciprocate with denuclearization. Therefore, he put the shutdown of Yongbyon, the main nuclear complex known to the outside world, on the table to exchange for sanctions removal.

However, the lack of an agreement on these issues ultimately led to the collapse of talks. The two leaders could not reach a deal because both parties refused to budge from their stances.

Trump wanted Kim to commit to the fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. In this sense, he wanted more than the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Meanwhile, Kim’s priority was to revitalize the North Korean economy. The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S and the United Nations in the past two years have greatly constrained the North Korean economy, and therefore, Kim did not back off on this matter.

Without an agreement, the South Korean government is now in a delicate situation. President Moon Jae-in, like many others, expected to see a deal from the Hanoi summit.

Moon is seeking peace on the Korean Peninsula and economic cooperation with North Korea is a key means through which he hopes to achieve this. He has concentrated on inter-Korean projects such as the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Kumgang Mountain resort in North Korea, laying the groundwork for future economic cooperation with Pyongyang. Moreover, he expected these inter-Korean projects to boost a sluggish South Korean economy. However, without sanctions relief from talks in Hanoi, the Moon’s administration is in a difficult position.

Furthermore, South Koreans are disappointed over the summit. According to a Realmeter survey, South Koreans’ skepticism of the North Korea’s denuclearization has negatively impacted Moon’s approval rating. Since the summit, his favorability rating has dropped to 45 percent, his lowest since he became president. He has played a leading role in facilitating diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and North Korea and he has put a lot of effort into ensuring the second summit world occur, in addition to the first historic summit in Singapore. Nonetheless, the discussion in Hanoi failed to bring about productive results and left the South Korean government more work to normalize relations and coordination between Trump and Kim.

After the Hanoi summit, Moon will take steps to resume conversations between the U.S and North Korea. In order to achieve inter-Korean projects, and to ensure peace and security of Korean peninsula, the Moon administration will intermediate or play shuttle diplomacy again between the president Trump and Kim.

Moreover, Moon will be mindful of his approval rating after the summit collapsed in Hanoi. Many South Koreans, including right-wing voters, have been critical of Moon’s diplomatic policies toward North Korea, which they view as being overly generous to Kim. Therefore, he will need to find new ways to resume talks between Trump and Kim, before domestic skepticism becomes a significant obstacle.

South Korea is anxious to break the impasse in inter-Korean relations and resume Trump and Kim’s diplomatic conversation. Though the second summit failed to make a deal, South Koreans will continue to mediate between the U.S and North Korea. Ultimately, Moon will spearhead the efforts to resume working-level talks and bring the two leaders back to the negotiating table. This is very important that Moon continues to contribute peacebuilding not just for South Korea but also for North Korea and other countries.