The Hanoi summit was disappointing, but not just for Washington. Seoul had hoped that a declaration to end the Korean war was a feasible possibility. Yet, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not even come close, leaving South Korea wary of its alliance with the US, an alliance that the North has so often sought to fracture. While in a post-summit call to Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in affirmed how he “looked forward to productive results at follow-up consultations” between the US and North Korea, it is time for the South to step into the vanguard. How better to reaffirm the US-South Korea alliance than through new joint military exercises, amid recent calls from Seoul to kick-start three-party dialogue before relations between Washington and Pyongyang stagnate further? The announcement by Washington and Seoul on March 2 of the cancellation of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle annual military exercises, is what Pyongyang and Beijing have always wanted. Yet the joint defence statement agreed on the importance of “strengthening coordination and cooperation” between Washington and Seoul. On March 4, this was put into action: a new, scaled-down military exercise, aptly named Dong Maeng – “alliance” – served to reinforce the US-South Korea alliance amid doubts about its strength. Moon calls on US and North Korea to resume denuclearisation talks The response of the Chinese foreign ministry reiterated Beijing’s support for “all active measures” to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula, implicitly referring to the conclusion of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Spokesman Lu Kang reiterated, somewhat elusively, how “China will continue to play a constructive role” towards the resolution of the Korean peninsula issue. What such a role will entail remains uncertain, but China does not want its voice silenced. China’s insistence that the US and North Korea meet “halfway” seems to echo Pyongyang’s time-old assertion of “countermeasures”. We must not forget Beijing’s preferential sequencing of events in relation to the denuclearisation of North Korea. China has long espoused a “freeze for freeze”, whereby the North suspends nuclear production, in return for a suspension in US-South Korea large-scale military exercises. China may be pleased that the Dong Maeng exercises are smaller than Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, but Pyongyang has still not made any concessions on its nuclear arsenal. The biggest loser of the Trump-Kim summit? Maybe Moon Jae-in Recent satellite imagery shows two contradictory pictures. The first is the lack of any reprocessing activities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex since late 2018. Second, however, are signs of work at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station at Tongchang-ri, a site which Pyongyang started dismantling after the Singapore summit. Although this site has previously been used for satellite, and not missile, launches, the timing of activity at the engine test stand and launch pad seems intentional. Crucially, satellite launches also involve intercontinental ballistic missile technology, prohibited under UN Security Council resolutions, and this possibility should not be ruled out. If Pyongyang realises that the US-South Korea alliance may be under strain post-Hanoi, the door is open for an opportunity for the North to reassert its nuclear ambitions, even in small-scale actions. Seoul is not ready to stand idly by. Are Trump, Xi and Moon all just keeping up with the Kims? After the announcement of the Dong Maeng military exercises, Seoul called for greater trilateral dialogue with Pyongyang and Washington. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha called for efforts for a 1.5-track dialogue, comprising officials and experts from all three parties, to advance discussions on denuclearisation. Such dialogue has been seen recently, namely in Sweden, before the Hanoi summit, and may prove more effective now with the evidence that both Washington and Pyongyang are willing to walk away from any bad deal. With South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, leaving for Washington on Tuesday, Seoul seems impatient to kick-start talks. Yet in Hanoi, Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, stated in no unclear terms that Kim may have “lost the will to negotiate” with the US. Moon may wish to be a mediator, but if Pyongyang has “lost the will” for dialogue, tripartite talks may not come quickly. Trump ‘very, very disappointed’ if North Korea is rebuilding missile site Pyongyang’s “pivot” to Beijing must not be overlooked. Moon affirmed how South Korea does “not want the stalemate to be prolonged”. Yet for Beijing, while stagnant US-South Korean dialogue may not advance active denuclearisation on the part of North Korea, it does not lead to any immediate drastic change on the peninsula. We must not forget that Kim stated that if the US ‘persists in imposing sanctions against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the country’ China may remain content, if not fully satisfied. Although Kim did not stop in Beijing when returning from Hanoi, North Korean deputy foreign minister Ri Kil-song met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after the summit. With Wang urging Washington and Pyongyang to keep “patience … and meet each other halfway” in advancing North Korea’s denuclearisation, China’s stance remains unchanged. Even if Kim had stopped over for a debriefing visit in China, would anything new emerge regarding China-North Korea ties? Reports have posited a possible trip by Kim to Dalian may arise in March, which will inevitably bring back memories of Kim’s meeting with Xi before the Singapore summit last year. A meeting post-Hanoi will reinforce how North Korea is not forgetting China. Dealing with the North may not be as simple as a three-way dialogue between the two Koreas and the US. US national security adviser John Bolton’s recent claim that the US may “look at ramping those [economic] sanctions up” if North Korea is unwilling to denuclearise will not have gone down well in Pyongyang. We await the North Korean reaction, but must not forget how in his New Year’s address, Kim stated that if the US “persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country”. North Korea rebuilds part of missile site it promised to dismantle: reports We can only speculate what a “new way” involves, but if this “way” involves nuclear weapons, we should not be surprised. Denuclearisation may be a long-term goal, but it’s time to start talking. Edward Howell is an ESRC scholar in international relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula.