Dodging Catastrophic Success and Failure in Hanoi

(Photo: Rodong Sinmun.)

President Trump avoided disaster in Hanoi, allowing many pundits in Washington to breathe easier. So pervasive was the pessimism entering into the president’s sojourn to Vietnam that many observers were predicting that Trump would give away the store—peace, sanctions, troops on the peninsula—in exchange for a handful of mostly empty promises from Chairman Kim Jong Un. They worried that Trump would blunder into a worst-case outcome for the US: promises of significant sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial, reversible demobilization of a small portion of the North’s nuclear facilities. Those who worried that President Trump would be duped celebrated the abrupt curtailment of the summit, which ended not with toasts or a dramatic joint statement ending the Korean War, but with “’til we meet again” and an early flight home for a beleaguered president.

But if the pessimists were relieved by events in Vietnam, the optimists—to include President Trump himself—were surely a bit disappointed. In the run-up to Hanoi, the administration’s worker bees had been busy crafting what appeared to be a small, but meaningful deal, that would advance both parties toward the long-term goals of peace and denuclearization. The broad parameters of the deal were pretty clear: suspension (and eventual dismantlement) of fissile material production at Yongbyon, monitored by US or other outside parties, in exchange for limited sanctions relief, some positive statement affirming that neither party harbored hostile feelings for the other, and a few modest humanitarian initiatives (food aid, remains recovery, etc.). More optimistically, some seasoned diplomats hoped the US and DPRK might agree to establish liaison offices to ease communication challenges and expedite future negotiations toward a more comprehensive peace and denuclearization framework.

In the end, the parties were unable to bridge the differences left unresolved by working-level officials. Hanoi was neither the catastrophic success feared by the pessimists nor the concrete breakthrough hoped for by those cheering for the administration.

That does not mean the summit was a complete waste of time. While the failure to reach agreement was a rather humiliating diplomatic debacle for Trump personally—no Nobel Prize in his near future—the United States and DPRK remain well positioned to narrow their differences.

Origins of Difficulties in Hanoi

From the beginning of the “Olympic Peace” initiative in December 2017, the Trump administration has misjudged many aspects of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, especially with regard to the forces shaping and constraining the DPRK’s actions. Among the core errors are these:

  • The administration wrongly concluded that Kim Jong Un reached out to Seoul solely because of the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign. In reality, Kim’s outreach was likely motivated by four factors: the consolidation of his political position; his development of a limited but convincing nuclear deterrent; the election of Moon Jae-in (giving the DPRK a willing negotiating partner in the South); and the international pressure campaign, which severely constrained, but did not cripple, the DPRK’s economy.
  • Trump wrongly concluded that Kim’s decision to suspend nuclear bomb and missile testing meant that the DPRK’s WMD programs were in stasis. The absence of testing does severely limit the ability of the North to improve the lethality and reliability of its nuclear arsenal, but it is still producing fissile material, and is likely continuing to manufacture nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
  • The administration wrongly thought that the promise of economic development—including a jazzy video with wild horses running free across a rugged landscape—would seduce Kim Jong Un. Dangling lures before the DPRK is not a bad idea; the US needs to illuminate the path forward and help Kim envision a brighter future. But the leaders of North Korea are not children. They know that economic reforms will require a degree of opening that will itself pose certain challenges for them. Trump’s faith in Kim’s ability to orchestrate an economic miracle appears at times to exceed that of the young North Korean leader himself!

On top of these US misunderstandings, both teams of negotiators—those from Pyongyang and those from along the Potomac—appear to have arrived in Hanoi with too much confidence that the other party “needed” a deal more than they did. It seems likely that Kim assumed that Trump would never leave Hanoi empty-handed, just as Secretary Pompeo may have judged that Kim’s eagerness to secure sanctions relief would force him to concede on key points, including the scope of denuclearization at Yongbyon and beyond.

What Comes Next?

Hanoi provided both Washington and Pyongyang with a welcome dose of reality. Fortunately, the summit ended not in acrimony, but with disappointment, and a sense of resolve. Despite its abrupt end, both sides within 24 hours reaffirmed their willingness to continue the diplomatic dance. President Trump may sulk for a while, at least until he receives another polite note from Chairman Kim. But his decision to suspend large scale US-ROK joint military exercises strongly suggests that he has no intention of punishing North Korea for the Hanoi Summit fizzle. Once the dust settles, it seems likely that Steve Biegun will try to arrange another round of working-level talks with his counterpart Kim Hyok Chol.

As for Kim Jong Un, he may at first play hard to get, a bit stung by the tough line taken by the US in Hanoi. In a statement made just hours after Trump’s departure, DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho sounded injured, assuring his listeners that North Korea would never unilaterally disarm and blaming the collapse of the talks on US overreaching. But Kim knows that each summit meeting with Trump bestows a little more international prestige and legitimacy on his young regime, so at the end of the day, he is almost certain to re-engage. KCNA touted the summit as a useful exchange of views, with no hint of pessimism about the future of the talks.

When talks resume, both sides will have learned something valuable from the summit in Hanoi. Kim knows that the DPRK cannot expect to get dramatic sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited freeze of its nuclear activities. Specifically, Washington has put down a marker that it expects North Korea to suspend ALL fissile material production, not only at Yongbyon, but also at any other uranium enrichment facilities, such as the one private imagery analysts believe they have discovered at Kangson. Sorting out the details on such matters will take time, as the DPRK has never officially admitted to the existence of such facilities.

The US team has also learned—one hopes—some useful lessons, not only about the DPRK, but also about their own top negotiator. North Korea is not so desperate for a deal that they are prepared to accede to sweeping US demands for access to sensitive DPRK facilities. The US is negotiating not with a conquered nation, but with a truculent and proud country playing a weak hand skillfully. And given Trump’s negotiating style and limited attention span, if there is to be a third summit meeting, the US team will need to nail down more details in advance. Trump lacks the capacity to juggle multiple variables—production of plutonium, highly enriched uranium, and missiles, inspections, peace agreements, liaison offices, human rights—simultaneously.

Losers and Winners?

No summit analysis would be complete without trying to tease out the winners and losers, although such score-keeping runs the risk of trivializing a national security undertaking that has enormous real-world consequences. Secretary of State Pompeo probably will pay the highest price for the failure of the Hanoi Summit to make more progress. He was in charge of summit preparations, and Trump cannot have been very happy on the long flight back to Washington. Of note, Pompeo wasn’t on the plane. He was off to Manila (why?), while National Security Advisor John Bolton was on Air Force One. According to many press reports, Bolton may have encouraged the president to “go big” during the summit—presenting the DPRK with a grand bargain that included dismantlement not just of Yongbyon, but of all other suspect nuclear sites and some missile-related facilities as well in exchange for a peace declaration and sanctions relief. Given his experience, Bolton would almost certainly have known that the DPRK would rebuff such a “grand bargain” at this time, preferring a go-slow action-for-action approach that allows Pyongyang to pocket some modest benefits while scrutinizing Washington’s approach for any sign of betrayal. If the reports are accurate, Bolton may actually bear the most responsibility for the summit breakdown, but it seems unlikely that the president will hold him accountable.

It’s easy to pick the biggest winner. From the visuals of Trump and Kim poolside, to the splashy news coverage, the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi shimmered in the limelight. It is a lovely hotel and highly recommended.

Bottom Line: Forging peace with North Korea and convincing Kim Jong Un to abandon his pursuit of nuclear weapons was never going to be easy. The conflict on the Korean Peninsula would not have endured for 70 years if its solution was obvious. Trump’s brash approach, if mated to careful spadework by his administration, could yield meaningful results, but the journey won’t be smooth or without the occasional reversals. As POTUS is fond of saying, “we’ll see” what comes next.

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