Picking Up the Pieces from Hanoi

President Donald J. Trump is greeted by Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, for their second summit meeting. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.)

The Hanoi Summit failed because both US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un overreached, demanding too much and offering too little. Yet each side put enough on the negotiating table for the makings of a deal. The need now is to resume talks—the sooner the better, perhaps with South Korea’s help—with the aim of having both sides offer a little more for a little more.

The summit story is now trickling out. In a useful first draft of history, the right-hand lead story in The New York Times by David Sanger and Edward Wong on Saturday, March 2 reveals the crux of the collapse:

In a dinner at the Metropole Hotel [on February 27]…Mr. Kim had resisted what Mr. Trump presented as a grand bargain: North Korea would trade all its nuclear weapons, material and facilities for an end to the American-led sanctions squeezing its economy…

…Mr. Kim also miscalculated. He bet Mr. Trump might accept a more modest offer that American negotiators in Hanoi had already dismissed: The North would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, three square miles of aging facilities at the heart of the nuclear program, for an end to the sanctions most harmful to its economy, those enacted since 2016.

It is essential to unpack what Sanger reported.

Some were quick to blame summitry. Sanger made this case explicit in his story a day earlier:

The split underscored the risk of leader-to-leader diplomacy: When it fails, there are few places to go, no higher-up to step in and cut a compromise that saves the deal.

In this case, the price may be high—especially if Mr. Kim responds to the failure by further accelerating his production of nuclear fuel and a frustrated Mr. Trump swings from his expressions of “love” for the North Korean dictator and back to the “fire and fury” language of early in his presidency.

“No deal is better than a bad deal, and the president was right to walk,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But this should not have happened,” he said. “A busted summit is the risk you run when too much faith is placed in personal relations with a leader like Kim, when the summit is inadequately prepared, and when the president had signaled he was confident of success.”

Similar stories appeared throughout the news media, along with relief in some circles that President Trump didn’t give away the store for the sake of just any deal.

Yet leader-to-leader diplomacy had its benefits as well as risks. North Korea is not like other states. It is extremely centralized. All authoritative decisions come from the very top down and anyone who contravenes them does so at his peril. Secretary of State Pompeo understood this rationale for summitry: “And when you’re dealing with a country that is the nature of North Korea, it is often the case that only the most senior leaders have the capacity to make those important decisions.” Kim Jong Un’s engagement is critical to moving a sclerotic policy process.

The US system is very different, but summitry still serves a useful purpose. With its dispersion of power and intense political rivalries, especially in the chaotic Trump administration, the president’s interest in a second summit meeting created an action-forcing process that engaged the time and attention of his senior officials, leading to many useful changes in the US negotiating position in the weeks leading up to the summit. This process made advances possible. Given the intense establishment, partisan and bureaucratic opposition to various inducements, a comprehensive package solution was politically impossible to muster, which made a detailed road map to denuclearization out of the question. Instead, Washington adopted a step-by-step approach that, if implemented, would engender a modicum of mutual trust.

A Better Understanding of What Pyongyang Wants

Critics have focused on the rushed last-minute preparations for the second summit. That critique ignores the preceding months of meetings between the two sides’ diplomatic and intelligence officials, which gave Washington a better appreciation of Pyongyang’s bottom line: US movement to end enmity and reconcile with it in order to reduce its political and economic dependence on China. Sanctions relief alone would not satisfy the North; the overall relationship will have to be addressed, including its security needs. That was clear from the Singapore Summit last June, when both sides pledged in the joint statement to “establish new US-DPRK relations” and “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

Hanoi was an especially suitable locale for underscoring the end of enmity given Vietnam’s fraught history with China and its postwar reconciliation with the United States. “The success of the Vietnamese economy is due to its decision to normalize relations with the United States in 1995,” Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security, told the Times. “I would say to our North Korean friends that as long as they have a conflict with the United States, they will not be able to develop their economy properly,” General Cuong said, adding, “China will try every possible tactic to keep North Korea in its arms because it wants a country to control.” “Luckily, North Korea has the necessary conditions to escape China’s grip if it deepens its relationship with America.”[1]

Washington Shifts its Negotiating Stance

On the way to the summit, Washington moved to address Pyongyang’s concerns. The first step was suspension and then scaling down of large-scale joint exercises on the Korean Peninsula, which was done at the president’s behest.

The next step came during Pompeo’s return visit to Pyongyang in October 2018. At an earlier meeting that July, as Sanger reports, “Mr. Kim declined to see him.” Sanger does not say why, but a likely reason is that Pompeo was not authorized to put on the negotiating table US willingness to commit to declaring an end to the Korean War, as Kim had been led to expect at the Singapore Summit, so Kim snubbed him. Without that commitment, Pompeo’s next planned visit that August was called off, lest it result in another failed mission and no meeting with Kim. Without that commitment, the North Koreans would also not meet with the newly named US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun.

Finally, in early October, after word reached Pyongyang that Washington was prepared to make that commitment, Pompeo returned to put the end-of-war declaration on the negotiating table and spent over five hours with Kim. In the course of those meetings, Biegun told an audience at Stanford University, Kim, in an unprecedented offer, committed “to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities…‘and more.’”

Kim, however, told Pompeo he was unwilling to provide a complete inventory of nuclear and missile assets and their locations, lest they be attacked. In another useful step, Washington then decided to phase in the inventory declaration instead, as Vice President Mike Pence hinted on November 15.[2] Critics may carp but the administration is right to phase in that inventory declaration, starting with the location of its plutonium reactors, reprocessing and enrichment sites. Before seeking an accounting of fissile material and number of weapons, it is prudent to seek access to these locations as well as the North’s nuclear-weapons test sites, its uranium mines, its ore refining plants, and its uranium hexafluoride plant to take various measurements that better enable it to assess how much fissile material the North could have produced. This nuclear archeology will reduce uncertainty. Since US intelligence estimates vary widely, any number the North would turn over of its stockpiled fissile material is certain to be controversial, as was the case in the initial declaration to the IAEA in 1992, which is now nearly forgotten but for years complicated efforts to contain the growing security threat posed by North Korea’s continued fissile material and missile production and testing.

During the run-up to this year’s summit, the United States also offered to exchange liaison offices in the two countries’ capitals, which Kim accepted in Hanoi. And it had scaled back joint military exercises on or near the Korean Peninsula.

Where Washington fell short was sanctions relief. It had recently approved several exemptions from UN Security Council sanctions for NGOs to resume delivery of humanitarian aid. It was also prepared to relax some US sanctions, or as Biegun hinted at Stanford, “We didn’t say we won’t do anything until you do everything.”

While it was willing to offer some of what Pyongyang wanted, as Biegun laid out, Washington still demanded a lot more in return. It wanted the verifiable suspension of all fissile material production throughout North Korea with a commitment to dismantle the production sites after measurements of production were taken. It sought a halt to production of ballistic missiles that could reach Japan and beyond. And it wanted access to other sites for nuclear archeology.

On the eve of the summit, US negotiators narrowed their focus to suspending all the fissile material production with a written commitment to their ultimate dismantlement, as Kim Jong Un told Pompeo. But DPRK negotiators fell short of offering that while seeking excessive sanctions relief in return. As Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained in a post-summit press conference in Hanoi:

[I]f the United States lifts a part of the United Nations [UN] sanctions, in other words, the provision of sanctions that impact the civilian economy and people’s living standards, then we will permanently, completely dismantle entire nuclear materials production facilities of Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium, through a joint work of technicians from both countries in the presence of US experts. What we proposed was not the complete lifting of sanctions, but their partial lifting. In particular, out of the 11 UN sanctions resolutions all together, we proposed the lifting of the five groups first from those that were adopted from 2016 to 2017, especially the articles that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood among them.[3]

Ri seemed to rule out a missile production halt or access to other sites for now, never mind a grand bargain, by saying, “Given the current level of trust between the two countries of [North] Korea and the United States, this is the biggest stride of denuclearization measure that we can take at the present stage.” He also cast doubt on shutting down a suspect uranium enrichment site: “[D]uring the talks, the United States held out for a claim until the end that one more thing, other than the measure for dismantlement of the nuclear facilities of the Yongbyon area, needs to be done and thus, it became clear that the United States is not prepared to accommodate our offer. At this stage, it is hard to say here whether a better agreement, than what we have offered, could be reached.”

A background briefing by a senior State Department official offered an expansive, perhaps excessive, interpretation of the North Korean demands on sanctions: “[I]f you review the UN Security Council resolutions you’ll see that includes—the sanctions themselves include a broad range of products, including metals, raw materials, transportation, seafood, coal exports, refined petroleum imports, raw petroleum imports. We asked the North Koreans to clarify for us what they meant…and it was basically all the sanctions except for armaments.”

The situation seems to have changed during the summit after the DPRK’s offer fell short of what Kim had told Pompeo last October. Some attribute the shift to Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress. “Trump could have had a small deal,” Joseph Yun, the former State Department special envoy for North Korea, told Sanger. “Close a few sites, and lift a few sanctions. But because of Cohen, the president needed a big deal.” In either event, it was an opening for President Trump to up the ante and ensure the rejection of a deal. The senior State Department official hinted that the US ask included chemical and biological weapons: “[T]he dilemma that we were confronted with is that the North Koreans at this point are unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons of mass destruction programs…The President in his discussions challenged the North Koreans to go bigger.

Getting Over the Summit

The summit was a disappointment, not a disaster. With both sides wanting far more than they were prepared to concede in return, the gap between them widened. Now the task is to close that gap.

Shutting down all the fissile material production facilities in Yongbyon is not enough. The North will have to suspend fissile material production at all sites and commit to dismantling them once measurements are taken to gauge how much they might have produced. Pyongyang will also need to do what they were prepared to do in Hanoi. As Foreign Minister Ri revealed, “During the meeting, we expressed our intent to make a commitment on a permanent suspension of nuclear testing and long-range rocket launch tests in writing in order to lower the concerns of the United States.”[4] Carrying out these commitments will, in turn, require much more sanctions relief than Washington has yet offered, including an exemption for reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex jointly operated by the North and South and resumption of South Korean tourism at Mount Kumgang in the North, an increased UN quota for oil imports to the North, and ending the US Trading with the Enemy Act sanctions, which previous presidents eased and then re-imposed. The administration needs to test whether relaxing sanctions will yield more than tightening them, making North Korea more dependent on South Korea than on China for a change.

In short, the makings of a first stage deal are there. As Secretary of State Pompeo put it, “There has to be a theory of the case of how to move forward. I’m confident there is one.” He did not say, but going back to a step-by-step approach is essential. Washington needs to stop swinging for the fences and remember that singles and doubles drive in many more runs.

  1. [1]

    Hannah Beech, “Vietnam Shows the Value of Burying the Hatchet with the U.S.,” New York Times, February 27, 2019, p. A-11.

  2. [2]

    Pence spoke of “a plan for identifying all the weapons in question, identifying all of the development sites, allowing for inspections of the sites.” Vaughn Hillyard, “Second Trump-Kim Summit to Go Ahead without List of North Korean Nuclear Weapons,” NBC News, November 15, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/second-trump-kim-summit-go-ahead-without-list-nuclear-north-n936481.

  3. [3]

    DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, “Press Conference, Hanoi,” Yonhap, February 28, 2019. Emphasis added.

  4. [4]


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