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Failure in Hanoi: What Happened and What’s Next

By Andy Laub

Despite the fanfare leading up to the second U.S.-North Korea summit, President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un did not make it past lunch on the second day of negotiations. Instead, President Trump left early due to his belief that they were going to strike a bad deal, noting, “Sometimes you just have to walk away.” The president was right to walk away. North Korea wanted sanctions lifted in exchange for the closure of their most important nuclear site at Yongbyon—a bad trade for the United States. And despite North Korea downplaying its request for the removal of five out of 11 international sanctions, lifting any would have allowed the country to continue expanding their nuclear weapons program. 

Diplomacy does not happen in a vacuum. Instead, it requires patience and a keen eye for detail from experts who understand the core issues. President Trump was naïve to assume his “great relationship” with Kim Jong-Un would lead to a comprehensive disarmament agreement. In actuality, any diplomacy that starts from the top-down is a recipe for failure. 

Shirking responsibility, Trump likes to blame his predecessors for the North Korean situation, tweeting, “So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!” However, it seems the president fell into the same trap. The American intelligence community has repeatedly said that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK’s) survival is contingent on its nuclear weapons program. Dr. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, summed it up with the following: 

Things never should have reached this point. Summits at most are expected to negotiate the last 10 percent of a deal. The Hanoi summit appeared to have it backward, requiring that the leaders negotiate 90 percent on the spot. The Hanoi summit showed the dangers of a president who over-personalizes diplomacy. Foreign policy is about the details, not the chemistry…

By overplaying his hand, Kim may have saved the president from himself. If reports were right, the United States was prepared to agree to offer a degree of sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea dismantling one of its enrichment facilities. But North Korea could have done this, and still maintained or even expanded its ability to enrich uranium and produce bombs and missiles.

In all fairness, President Trump’s actions in Hanoi may have been a series of well-considered negotiating tactics. Walking out of negotiations can sometimes force both parties to clarify their disagreements, think about what they want and regroup. Trump did not walk away from the negotiating table in anger, and there was no bellicose rhetoric from Kim. Because of this, it is still possible for negotiations to continue. However, this is not assured, as the next U.S.-presidential election, along with a host of problems plaguing Trump’s presidency, could derail future talks between the two countries.

Where do we go from here? 

Keeping communication open between all affected parties is essential. This is why it was so disappointing to note that no effort was made to establish liaison offices between the United States and North Korea. The correct action would be for Stephen Biegun, special representative to the DPRK, to maintain an open line of communication with his North Korean counterpart. But there is a real danger that Kim Jong-Un (always wanting to be taken seriously as a leader) could take over the diplomatic process and request that negotiations only continue if they are between himself and President Trump. 

Reaching out to South Korea, Japan, and China to discuss the next steps in negotiating with North Korea is also an absolute necessity. To achieve success, future high-level meetings should take place in a more multilateral setting. Christopher Hill, who led the North Korea six-party talks under the Bush administration, underscored this point, stating that “Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. And this was the case at the #HanoiSummit2019. But @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo need to give thought to broader diplomatic architecture and get regional countries more involved.”

Seeing American and North Korean flags displayed together and the U.S. president sitting down with a brutal dictator can churn one’s stomach. Kim Jong-Un has an illegal nuclear weapons program that threatens peace and stability in Northeast Asia and a shocking human rights record. Yet, not only did President Trump refrain from pressuring Kim Jong-Un on improving human rights in his country, but he also believed his version of events concerning Otto Warmbier’s death and earlier imprisonment in North Korea. When discussing the torture Warmbier received, Trump said, “[Kim Jong-Un] tells me he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” This grotesque statement is only a recent example of the United States’ eroding credibility as a leader in democracy and human rights. 

In the end, the president traveled 8,000 miles for nothing, and we are no closer to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since the failed talks, North Korea has restarted key missile sites and President Trump has overruled the Treasury Department’s efforts at placing new sanctions on North Korea, with White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying, “President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.” It seems that the president continues to have a blind spot when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Instead, a humanitarian approach to sanctions should be undertaken, to allow North and South Korea to work together on economic projects without it conditioned on trading everything away during negotiations. However, only time will tell if future negotiations succeed or if North Korea continues down this dangerous and destructive path.

This post was originally published in Political Insights.

Andy Laub is the director of partnerships and a North Korea analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the international chapters director at YPFP. Andy received his Master of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam