Despite President Donald Trump's personal declaration that he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un for a third summit, whether and when that will materialize is a fair subject for academic dissection.
Here's the review. Trump's "failure" to reach a deal at the Hanoi summit was roundly welcomed back home in the United States. That's odd. Usually, a summit is an occasion where all the details are worked out between working-level officials and the role of a president is to ceremoniously seal the deal, shake hands and smile for the cameras. That didn't happen. But instead of facing political headwinds, Trump was applauded by his domestic audience.
Trump even walked away from a scheduled lunch with the North Korean leader. In the ordinary world, and at an ordinary summit, that should be seen as a diplomatic fiasco. But he was praised for that.
The whole Hanoi drama must have taught Trump, who is facing a presidential election next year, some lessons.
Now, for Trump, the most important thing is to win the next year's election. Already, the Democratic candidates are lining up, vowing to crush Trump. The "game of thrones" is heating up. Naturally, "North Korea" will be put on the back burner. It is no longer an item that grabs Trump's attention.
In fact, from time immemorial, the very idea of a summit with North Korea's dictator was frowned upon by the Washington elite. The energy for the summit was largely driven by Trump, who happens to be the most powerful person in America. The Washington elite have all along been skeptical about Kim's intention for denuclearization. They were also worried that Trump might sign a "bad deal" at the Hanoi summit.
Under such circumstances, it is risky for Trump to hold another summit with Kim without the guarantee of success that he can use as a "win" so as to jack up his bid to win the election.
But Kim doesn't seem to be ready to give Trump what he wants: denuclearization. Rather, Kim has been emphasizing "self-reliance" of the economy to tide over the impact of the economic sanctions as much as possible.
On the other hand, Trump is also not ready to give what Kim wants either: lifting of sanctions.
The Trump team seems to believe it gained a very valuable negotiation insight from Hanoi. In Vietnam, North Korea requested a sanctions lift, while other items such as establishing liaison offices or a peace declaration were of secondary importance for the North Koreans.
Pyongyang's attitude of singularly prioritizing sanctions relief in Hanoi gave the American side a strong impression that sanctions were really, truly, bona fide, working! It is quite likely that the Trump administration will continue to use the sanctions as the main leverage to corner North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons. Now, Washington seems to believe it has figured out what hurts North Korea most.
What we are currently seeing is that even if both Trump and Kim express willingness to meet again for a third summit, there is not enough reason on both sides to hold the summit because neither could meet the other's most fundamental demands.
Besides, it is quite unlikely for the Trump administration to change its hardened attitude regarding the economic sanctions. U.S. lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, also back a tough stance on North Korea after the Hanoi summit.
But as most students who were schooled in the basic political genetics of the North Korean regime, Kim is likely to prove the American logic wrong.
Taken together, Trump's public declaration that he has a "great relationship" with Kim, or he "respects" Kim, or his praise such as "North Korea has a tremendous potential," all of them may be skillful lip service, ultimately engineered to "manage" Kim's behavior in the run-up to the election. Trump doesn't want North Korea to be an "issue" until the election is over.
Today, Trump's hands are tied, his maneuvering room to reach out to North Korea is reduced by the reality of domestic politics. This line of thinking leads to the bad news that a third summit may not be on the horizon any time soon. The good news is that if Trump wins the election next year, he will be again in an adventurous mode and surely desire another rendezvous with Kim.
Lee Seong-hyon (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ph.D., is director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute.