It seemed like a night between two friends: US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dined over a four-course spread of prawn cocktails, marinated sirloin steak, chocolate lava cake, dried persimmons and kimchi luxuriously fermented inside a pear.
The flags of the United States and North Korea served as a backdrop to the meal, served up in Hanoi in the luxurious surroundings of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.
But despite the convivial start, Trump walked out of the Hanoi negotiations the next day, on February 28.
One year has passed since that moment, and experts are split on whether the nuclear talks are definitively over or merely undecided.
“We haven’t really had discussions or real negotiations since that moment,” said Peter Ward, a North Korea analyst who researches the North Korean economy. “It has basically been dead silence.”
This June, the Korean Peninsula will mark the 70th anniversary of the start of its technically still-ongoing war. The two countries – in a ceasefire since July 1953 – have yet to reach a peace agreement, re-engage in economic partnerships, build an inter-Korean train line or reopen joint-tourism ventures that South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised to revive.
Part of the problem is that the United Nations has not lifted a single US-led economic sanction against Pyongyang. The other problem is that North Korea and the US cannot seem to get back to the negotiating table.
“The calculation in Washington is that serious sanctions relief will not come before a more serious breakdown of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and North Korea doesn’t seem to want to talk about that in much detail,” Ward said.
“One gets the impression that negotiations would have eventually broken down, anyway. It seems like North Korea had really unrealistic expectations.”
Other experts tend to agree. Not only have Trump and Kim Jong Un failed to talk again, but last year Pyongyang returned to its old habit of conducting short-range missile tests.
“The problem with the Hanoi summit was that it failed to achieve sanctions relief, and hence did not empower South Korea to offer sufficient carrots to keep engagement going,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Expecting no immediate benefits from diplomacy, North Korea returned to its cycle of stonewalling, threatening and provoking.”
The future of engagement
Since talks in Hanoi broke down, one thing seems clear: Diplomatic dreams die in deadlock.
President Moon’s administration once seemed to focus almost exclusively on North Korea, with ribbon-cutting ceremonies near the demilitarised zone and invitations to joint sports games frequently making headlines.
In Seoul, massive banners of the North and South Korean presidents shaking hands used to hang over city hall, and trucks equipped with billboard-sized monitors would roll through the city blasting pro-engagement messages.
Now, North Korea has routinely refused aid packages from President Moon – and much of the South Korean public’s focus has shifted to the nation’s slow-growing economy and youth unemployment woes. Fewer than half of citizens in their 20s are happy with Moon’s performance, according to recent polls.
“Things have gotten a lot worse, haven’t they?” Ward said. “Prior to the Hanoi Summit, I think we were still in the throes of an inter-Korean approach to things, and now that has gone very cold.”