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What Happened in Hanoi?

Kim Jong-­un and Donald Trump
Kim Jong-­un and Donald Trump

Shortly after the success of The Art of the Deal (1987) made Donald Trump a supposed expert on negotiation, he lobbied the George H.W. Bush administration to put him in charge of arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union. The position went instead to Richard Burt, an experienced diplomat and arms control expert. When the two men met at a New York social event, Trump pulled Burt aside to tell him what he would have done—and what Burt should do—to start off the negotiations. Greet the Soviets warmly, he said. Let the delegation get seated and open their papers. Then stand up, put your knuckles on the table, lean over, say “Fuck you,” and walk out of the room.

When I heard this story from Burt in 2016, it seemed further—if especially bizarre—evidence of Trump’s conviction that bluster and intimidation are universally effective. His interactions with North Korea over the past year, however, make clear that it’s more complicated than that. Trump thinks that what works is the unexpected. His goal is to put people off balance, which allows him, he believes, to get his way. This explains his otherwise baffling calls for US policy to be “unpredictable.” With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the unexpected came in the form of Trump’s claim to have fallen “in love” and his showers of praise for Kim’s personality, his intelligence, his talents, his love of his people, and his leadership—all for a man who runs the poorest economy in all of Asia and the beastliest regime on the planet.

To lavish this acclaim on Kim, Trump had to ignore Pyongyang’s record of cruelty, vast prison camps, hostage-taking of Americans, and assassinations. But the unexpected hasn’t worked any more than Trump’s ludicrous strategy would have worked with the Soviets. The reason is not hard to find. Two years in the Oval Office have had no effect on his conviction that the presidency is about himself, whereas the foreign leaders he meets are looking out for their national interests.

What happened at the second Trump–Kim meeting in Hanoi in late February had its roots in last June’s summit in Singapore. In March 2018 Trump leapt to accept a North Korean invitation to meet that envisioned “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” He did not stop to learn that this language was not a breakthrough response to his threats of “fire and fury” but rather a phrase Pyongyang has used for more than twenty-five years—beginning with a North–South Korean agreement in 1992—to mean something drastically different from what Americans mean by it. By putting the emphasis on the Korean peninsula rather than just North Korea, Pyongyang means that it would denuclearize after the US signs a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, ends its defense alliance with South Korea, removes its forces from the peninsula, and withdraws the nuclear umbrella that now protects South Korea and Japan. Pyongyang would also insist that the US end its “anti-DPRK hostile policies”—including economic sanctions—and perhaps its military presence in all of Northeast Asia.

Plunging ahead to a summit with little preparation and no understanding of this crucial distinction or of the long, sorry history of failed agreements with North Korea, Trump got nothing in Singapore beyond an even vaguer promise from Kim to “work toward” denuclearization.* While Kim gave nothing, Trump gave too much. A meeting with a sitting US president was in itself a highly valued North Korean goal. The enormous global press coverage that came with it, sweetened by Trump’s over-the-top praise of Kim, conferred a degree of international standing the North Korean leader had never before enjoyed. Trump’s abstaining from public criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses was a sensible negotiating strategy, but the needless choice to make light of them was not. Conditions in North Korea are “rough,” he said—an adjective he used again in Hanoi to describe North Korean prisons—but after all, “it’s rough in a lot of places.”

Trump’s biggest concession in Singapore, for which he got nothing in return, was a unilateral decision to suspend joint US–South Korean military exercises. Far from being overly expensive “war games,” such exercises are the foundation of military readiness to fight—especially to fight effectively with a foreign force—should that ever be necessary. Indefinitely suspending them was a serious mistake that is going to be hard either to live with, as readiness atrophies over time, or to undo, since North Korea will feel compelled to respond if large-scale exercises are resumed. Trump further unsettled the US’s most important Asian allies by announcing, without consulting or even alerting Seoul or Tokyo, that he’d like to withdraw all US forces from South Korea.

The drama of the first-ever meeting between these long-standing antagonists was enough to distract most of the media, for a while, from the fact that nothing was actually agreed to in Singapore. But despite Trump’s gigantic lie—“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea”—it didn’t take long for the truth to surface. Whether denuclearization begins by closing facilities, by cutting weapons stockpiles, or by freezing production of nuclear fuel, the first step is making an inventory of what is in place. Without a detailed list of what a country has and where, there can be no verification (except of explosive tests or missile launches, which can be monitored from outside the country), and therefore no meaningful arms control. Yet when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang to begin making such a list, just three weeks after the Singapore summit, Kim refused even to meet with him. Underscoring that they were not, in fact, prepared to begin denuclearization as Americans understand it, North Korean officials bashed the US for making “gangster-like” demands that amounted, in their eyes, to being asked to create a “target list.”

In the months that followed, the Trump administration tried hard to turn the summit’s mushy outcome into something concrete. It appointed a former senior official, Stephen Biegun, as a special envoy to work full time on denuclearizing North Korea and pushed Pyongyang to create joint task forces to tackle what needed to be done. In a further sign that all was not as it had seemed in Singapore, Pyongyang refused. Confusion over what was going on reached a peak in December, when National Security Adviser John Bolton commented incomprehensibly, “They have not lived up to the commitments so far. That’s why I think the President thinks that another summit is likely to be productive.”

Last summer, the president had asked the Japanese government to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. The prize given to President Obama, however undeserved, still rankled. As the months passed, its allure grew and surely had something to do with Trump’s push for a second summit despite the lack of progress. Each leader harbored the conviction that across a table from the other, he could successfully negotiate an agreement.

As the Hanoi meeting neared, the contradictions grew. News broke of renewed activity at a North Korean missile site, of the discovery of a previously unknown site, and of continued production of nuclear weapons fuel by North Korea since the Singapore summit. In late January, speaking on behalf of all the US intelligence agencies, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats concluded that because North Korea’s leaders see their nuclear arsenal as “critical to regime survival,” they are “unlikely to” (intelligence-speak for “won’t”) give them up.

Yet expectations on the US side soared. Trump prophesied “fantastic success.” Leaks and official speeches suggested that the countries would go far beyond denuclearization by signing a declaration to officially end the Korean War and perhaps, by establishing liaison offices in each other’s capital, take a step toward normalizing relations. In exchange for a North Korean pledge to shut down its major nuclear weapons fuel production site at Yongbyon, Washington would lift some of its sanctions. Nongovernmental experts warned repeatedly that the US was about to give up too much for far too little. Then, as Trump was about to leave for Hanoi, he suddenly, drastically lowered the bar: “I’m in no rush…I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.” At this point, anyone who thought he or she could predict the outcome of the summit hadn’t been paying close attention.

No one who was not in the room knows what actually happened at the short meeting between Trump and Kim in Hanoi—and possibly those who were don’t know either. It has been called a total failure, a basis for further talks, and even a success. Before rushing out of town—having canceled a planned “signing ceremony”—Trump announced at his press conference that North Korea had demanded a complete lifting of sanctions in return for dismantling Yongbyon. Hours later North Korea called a highly unusual after-midnight press conference to contradict him, saying that it had demanded only a partial lifting of sanctions. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, a crucial intermediary, has backed North Korea’s version. Satellite imagery made public days after the summit revealed that Pyongyang had begun to rebuild a missile test site it had partially dismantled after the June meeting. Experts disagree on whether this is a renewed threat or a sign of North Korea’s urgent need for an agreement because of its economic weakness. Just about the only thing that is clear is that the two sides were not ready for the meeting in Hanoi.

What happens next? Anything is possible, from North Korea resuming nuclear or missile tests in the near future to another (very unwise) summit. Trump chooses to be unpredictable and he has few peers in that. But those who have dealt with North Koreans know that they are at least his equal. The most carefully prepared official visits frequently dissolve in a cloud of confusion. Even semiofficial or unofficial meetings can be suddenly blown off course. Experts on North Korea expect it. The US–North Korean relationship right now is thus unpredictability squared. There are also signs of division within the Trump administration, with the president and secretary of state badly wanting a deal—perhaps a Nobel Prize–size deal—and Bolton, who has long favored force over negotiation, working behind the scenes to sabotage an agreement.

In the US there are roughly two schools of thought about how to proceed. By far the larger is composed of those who, one way or another, focus on process. Before Singapore there was an enormous debate over whether it was wise to begin a negotiation at the top, rather than follow the usual diplomatic practice of hammering out an agreement among lower-level officials, leaving only the last few points for leaders to agree on. Trump supporters pointed out that the US had spent decades failing to make that approach work with North Korea, perhaps not surprising when dealing with a country with only one decision-maker. Why not, then, try the top-down approach with an American leader who has—or thinks he has—strong powers of persuasion? Whatever the merits of this argument, the collapse in Hanoi makes clear that starting at the top cannot work unless a threshold of agreement has been reached in advance, on paper and in some detail. Otherwise a summit, which lasts at most a day or two, is just asking for trouble.

There is also debate about what talks should focus on: Is North Korea’s continuing ability to make more weapons fuel, and therefore more nuclear weapons, the greater threat, or should the US make ending Pyongyang’s missile testing its top priority? North Korea has only carried out two tests of an intercontinental-range missile—not nearly enough to have confidence in its capacity to reach the US. But it also has a large force of shorter-range missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan. Adding to an arsenal that already numbers thirty to sixty nuclear weapons would not necessarily change the threat dramatically, but North Korea could covertly export excess nuclear fuel to other countries or nonstate groups. Furthermore, shutting down fuel production requires invasive, on-the-ground inspections, whereas missile testing can be monitored from outside the country. This debate consumes lots of time among experts but ends inconclusively.

The success of an agreement that shut down North Korea’s plutonium production from 1994 to 2002, avoiding production of fuel sufficient for about one hundred bombs, is a reason to think that an agreement can be reached again. On the other hand, that agreement ended when the US discovered that North Korea had been cheating by building a secret facility to make highly enriched uranium, the other nuclear weapons fuel. Rather than insist that North Korea dismantle the facility and adhere to the clear intent of the agreement, Washington chose to end it—a mistaken decision in which Bolton had a major part. There have been other, perhaps historic, missed opportunities. Some of the participants in talks held in 2000 believe that North Korea was prepared to reach an agreement on missiles that Washington was not then ready for.

In spite of all the failures, the optimists still believe an agreement can be reached if only the right formula can be found. They point to American mistakes over the past year that can be corrected. Washington gave Pyongyang unreciprocated gifts at Singapore and then seemed to be negotiating with itself by publicly changing its goals for Hanoi. They argue that Kim Jong-un appears to care far more about his country’s economic progress than either his father or grandfather did. The tough US-led sanctions now in place have badly hurt North Korea’s economy, and thus their power as leverage is growing. Most important, these believers note that until now South Korea has not had a president as resolutely, passionately, and effectively devoted as Moon Jae-in to both Seoul’s defense alliance with the United States and to reunification of the two Koreas.

The second school of thought, in which I now reluctantly find myself, believes that a solution cannot be found through further efforts along established lines. There are overwhelming reasons why North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear deterrent, except perhaps in the distant future. If that is the case, then the US goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” in the near term is unachievable and is the reason for Washington’s decades-long failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. Beyond their military utility, nuclear weapons are all that North Korea has to command international attention. Pyongyang may also see them as a valuable bargaining chip should it ever negotiate reunification with Seoul, which has a huge advantage in economic strength.

Moreover, North Korean officials know the fate of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. They are quick to tell visitors that if the Iraqi and Libyan leaders had not given up their weapons of mass destruction, their lives would have ended quite differently. Being close students of US foreign policy, they are also likely to believe that just as Washington eventually dropped its sanctions and accepted Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear status, it will ultimately do the same for North Korea.

A North Korean military official discussing plans for the demolition of the Punggye-ri underground nuclear test facility, May 2018
News1-Dong-A Ilbo/Getty Images
A North Korean military official discussing plans for the demolition of the Punggye-ri underground nuclear test facility, May 2018

It is well to remember that while a dozen countries have halted nuclear programs at various points, only one has given up completed nuclear weapons it made itself. This was the South African apartheid government of F. W. de Klerk, and in that case the motivation was probably fear of turning over those weapons to the incoming black government. To this history must be added North Koreans’ living memory of the devastation the country suffered in the Korean War and the immense sacrifices it has made over six decades to build its nuclear force.

A more realistic policy therefore would be for Washington to move partway to the South Korean view that denuclearization will come as a consequence of peace on the peninsula. This is the reverse of the current US view that the elements of peace—a formal end to the Korean War, Korean reunification, and adjustments to the US–South Korean defense alliance and the disposition of US forces there—can only follow verifiable denuclearization.

Such a shift in policy would not mean that the US has to formally accept North Korea as a permanent nuclear state. Instead, a deliberately ambiguous arrangement, along the lines of the One China policy, might be developed. One China allowed the US to recognize the PRC as the sole legal government of China and sidestep a nonnegotiable disagreement and possible war, and enabled Washington and Beijing to open relations, while letting the US continue to safeguard Taiwan’s independence, democracy, and economic vitality, at the cost of lowering Taipei’s diplomatic status. It has been in effect for decades.

Similarly, the US and North Korea might agree to disagree on its permanent nuclear status, while taking concrete steps to lower pressing threats. They might agree to a formal ban on missile testing, optimally covering even short-range missiles. They might be able to agree to a verifiable freeze on the production of nuclear weapons fuel. These and possibly other steps would dramatically lower the threat North Korea poses to international peace, despite falling far short of denuclearization. Sanctions relief could begin with measures that would allow joint economic projects (the reopening of a factory park and a tourist resort just north of the DMZ and possible linkage of railways) between the North and the South to resume and expand.

If mutual trust grows, and Pyongyang has more and more to gain from its economic relations with the South and other countries, agreements might be reached to reduce the huge conventional forces that North Korea has stationed along the DMZ. These would lower the threat to South Korea and to US forces there, and ease the burden on Pyongyang of supporting such a large military. North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons might also be addressed, as well as its cybercrimes. But North Korea would not rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty or be recognized in any other international setting as a nuclear state.

A straightforward test could help decide if Washington needs to make this somewhat bitter change in policy. If the US and North Korea can formally agree to the same definition of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” then there is no need for the change. If they cannot, as they have failed to do for a quarter-century, then it is time to rethink American goals. Either way, making progress is going to require that the US carefully ration the remaining elements of its leverage: the breadth and warmth of its interactions with Pyongyang from cultural exchanges to diplomatic recognition, its military presence in South Korea and close coordination, including the eventual resumption of exercises, with the South Korean military, and its unilateral and multilateral sanctions. They are substantial, but fewer than the elements of North Korean policy that need to change.

—March 20, 2019

  1. *

    See my “Singapore Sham,” The New York Review, August 16, 2018.