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[2019 in review] From Hanoi to ‘Christmas gift,’ Trump-Kim’s roller-coaster year

Lots of drama, but no progress on North Korean denuclearization

It was another whirlwind year for US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

They met twice this year, grabbing global headlines with their friendly handshakes in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a dramatic turn of events, as Trump “walked way” proclaiming a collapse of their talks. This was followed months later by photo ops of the US president crossing the border at the Demilitarized Zone in Pannumjom to meet Kim.

Despite all the drama and “Trump-Kim chemistry,” there has been little progress toward lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, the Cold War’s last stand. Nuclear negotiations remain deadlocked, and Kim appears ready to test more weapons.

On the last day of 2019 -- the deadline set by Pyongyang for Washington to make concessions in their stalled talks -- it’s hard to predict how the two leaders, both unpredictable and unconventional, will interact and handle the nuclear talks.       

Before making any projections, here are some major events that defined this year, along with the diplomatic ups and downs of Kim, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. 
US President Donald Trump (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in stand next to each other in the southern part of the Joint Security Area in the DMZ on June 30. (Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in stand next to each other in the southern part of the Joint Security Area in the DMZ on June 30. (Yonhap)

The year 2019 began with optimism. Kim and Trump met in Singapore for the first time in June 2018 and planned to meet again the following month in Hanoi. Kim, in his closely-watched New Year’s address, pledged to denuclearize, expressing hope that the relationship with the US would “bear good fruits.”

On Feb. 27, Kim and Trump met for their highly anticipated two-day summit in Hanoi. But things took an unexpected turn and talks collapsed, as they failed to narrow their differences over UN-led sanctions that have been crippling the North’s economy. 

“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump said after the talks collapsed, saying he demanded irreversible denuclearization steps first. Still, he added that the meeting was “productive” and they were still “good friends.”

However, North Korean officials disputed Trump’s account, saying Kim was only seeking partial sanctions relief, and if the US was willing, Pyongyang would dismantle all nuclear material production. 

Tensions escalated when Kim declared a year-end deadline for Washington to come up with a more “flexible” deal in April, with a warning that failure to do so would force it to take a “new path.”

In another turn of events on June 30, Trump shook hands with Kim on the North Korean side of the DMZ separating the two Koreas, making him the first sitting US president to set foot on North Korean soil. Trump said he had spontaneously invited Kim for a handshake, but US media later reported that he had it planned as the climax of his Asian trip.

South Korean President Moon, who accompanied Trump to Panmunjom, said the two leaders’ “extraordinary proposal and bold response” could help end hostility and start an era of peace.

Following the meeting at the DMZ, Washington and Pyongyang announced they would resume working-level talks, which were held in Stockholm, Sweden, in October. But the meetings ended with no deal.

Fast forward to December. No new agreement has been made yet to keep negotiations going. Earlier this month, North Korea said it conducted a “crucial test” at its long-range rocket launch site, claiming it will further strengthen its nuclear deterrent.

Ratcheting up its rhetoric, North Korea also warned of an unwanted “Christmas gift” for the US if the latter does not take steps to salvage the negotiations ahead of the North’s year-end deadline.

“Kim Jong-un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way,” Trump tweeted. “He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interferes with the US presidential election in November.”

Meanwhile, Christmas Day passed without the North presenting the US with a “gift,” which many observers had predicted would be the North’s first intercontinental ballistic missile launch since 2017. But officials in Washington and Seoul are still on high alert for further provocations. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (