To the surprise of almost everyone, the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not result in an agreement. It broke down because of an unknown unknown, but the lessons it teaches will be useful for achieving better results in the future.
All signs before the end of the summit pointed to an agreement – maybe not a big one, but an agreement nonetheless. When Kim Jong Un traveled to his first summit with Donald Trump in Singapore last June, the state media in North Korea waited until after the meeting to inform his population of the event. Not so this time. The official KCNA news agency broke the Hanoi summit to North Korean citizens several days before the event. “The North Korean media were playing up the prospects for a breakthrough, describing the country as ‘boiling like a crucible’ with expectation,” reported the Guardian. On the eve of his trip to Vietnam, Trump was also confident that his second meeting with Kim would be a “very tremendous summit.”
With the U.S. accounts (here and here), the North Korean account (here), and a detailed account from a Vietnamese official privy to the talks (here), we now know a good deal about what happened. The crux of the negotiation involved North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities and the sanctions imposed on North Korea. North Korea offered to dismantle the Yongbyon complex, the biggest of its nuclear weapons sites, but was inconsistent about an exact definition of the facility. In return, North Korea asked for the lifting of all sanctions imposed since March 2016, except for those directly targeting their weapons of mass destruction programs. While North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho described them as “five of the 11” United Nations sanctions, American negotiators saw them as “the bulk of the sanctions,” “where all the value of the sanctions were imposed.” Prior to the Hanoi meeting, the negotiation teams were deadlocked about what part of the Yongbyon complex would be closed down and what part of the sanctions would be lifted, so they left it to Trump and Kim to decide. Nevertheless, they made two documents ready for signing: a joint statement of the summit and a declaration on ending the Korean War.
As it turned out, Kim and Trump did not come close regarding the Yongbyon complex or the sanctions. One obvious reason for the breakdown of the summit is its process. It left too much of a gap for the top leaders to close in too little time. But Trump and Kim could have saved the summit by picking “low-hanging fruits.” Part of the package their teams had prepared was an agreement to set up liaison offices in each other’s capital. So why did they return home empty-handed?
An event on the home front that badly affected Trump can help explain this. At the same time as he was in Hanoi, his former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress in Washington, DC. The testimony ended a few hours before Trump met with Kim in the second day of their summit. In his testimony, Cohen portrayed Trump as a man you can’t trust, someone who could betray his friends and sell out his country. This created a huge amount of extra pressure on Trump.
Before (as well as after) the summit, a loud, bipartisan chorus in the United States told Trump that no deal is better than a bad deal. As he did not receive an extra piece from Kim, Trump walked away to prove Cohen wrong. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described what happened at the talk, “we asked him [Kim Jong-un] for more. He was unprepared to do that.”
Kim appears to gain more than Trump from the Hanoi summit in terms of their respective domestic legitimacy. While Trump’s domestic audience is split between thinking “no deal is better than a bad deal” and “the failure to reach an agreement marks a setback,” North Korean citizens can be proud of the diplomatic parity their leader has achieved with the most powerful country in the world and the best praises for him given by that country’s president. Indeed, the North Korean state news agency reported after the summit that Kim expressed gratitude to Trump for traveling so far and actively putting in efforts to get results.
Nevertheless, Kim walked away in a much weaker position than Trump. The balance of urgency tilts in favor of the United States because its sanctions on North Korea come with little costs as long as Pyongyang does not conduct more tests of strategic weapons, whereas North Korea cannot prosper as long as sanctions are imposed. On top of this, the balance of vulnerability also favors the United States as Washington has more capabilities to threaten North Korea than vice versa. Against this background, Kim Jong Un has five major options.
Option 1: Kim can resort to some aggressive action to give Washington a sense of urgency. This is a bad choice for Kim as overt aggression will only invite more sanctions.
Option 2: Kim keeps his pledge not to conduct further tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but he secretly piles up his weapons arsenal to increase the depth for future concessions. The 5 MWe Yongbyon reactor was estimated to be capable of producing about 6 kg of plutonium every year, enough to make about two bombs.
Option 3: Kim turns to other regional powers in Northeast Asia, trying to cut separate deals with South Korea and Japan and offering incentives for China and Russia to put pressure on the United States. Kim has pursued this path with South Korea and probably China and Russia, but it has so far had little effect on sanctions. Kim can extend his charm offensive to Japan, but as long as his weapons of mass destruction programs remain intact, no sanctions will be relieved. While it does not directly affect sanctions, this path can serve as an indirect way to communicate and build trust with the United States. Returning to the Six-Party Talks is definitely not worth a try for North Korea, as it will exert more pressure on North Korea than on the United States.
Option 4: Kim waits for a better time when Trump or another U.S. president is more ready to accept his present offer. The big risk associated with this option is that this “better time” may never come. With a House of Representatives dominated by the Democrats and the specter of a modern-day Watergate looming, Trump is facing increasing domestic pressure. On top of this, next year will see a presidential election in the United States. Trump will have less time for North Korea and he may not risk another resultless meeting with Kim. Waiting beyond 2020 is a real big gamble because the chance of a more confident Trump or another U.S. president willing to make concessions may not be worth the opportunity costs.
Option 5: Kim can lower his current demands or enlarge his current concessions to cut a suboptimal deal with the United States. This is the most realistic option to get sanctions relief, but it runs the risk of being perceived as a sign of weakness by maximalist negotiators, who would take advantage of it to demand more. As the weaker party, North Korea has a more acute sense of vulnerability than the United States and, other things being equal, is less willing to make concessions.
Thus the most likely option that Kim will take is option 2 (secretly piling up his weapons arsenal) which on the surface looks like option 4 (waiting for a better time). Kim will also toy with some elements of option 3 (separate talks with South Korea and other regional powers). This, in essence, is a continuation of what Kim has done since the start of his “new strategic line” in early 2018.
At first sight, it looks like time is on the U.S. side. The United States can live forever with a nuclear-armed North Korea, assuming that mutual deterrence works, while it is much harder for North Korea to live under prolonged sanctions, assuming that the pains caused by sanctions grow by the length of the sanctions. Thus, taking time to squeeze out more concessions from North Korea seems to be good advice. In fact, this has been exactly the U.S. approach for several decades.
But this has been a bad strategy because one of its assumptions is dead wrong. Mutual deterrence has been working well but pain is a relative experience and when it reaches a certain high level it can stop growing. As the last several decades have shown, more time did not give more security or more advantage to the United States. On the contrary, more time did give North Korea more weapons of mass destruction.
The aborted Hanoi summit suggests two big lessons. First, if the United States does not realize that time is not on its side, or if North Korea does not understand that the U.S. president does not control Washington’s politics, the deadlock will stay and the vicious circle will keep spinning. Opportunities for improving the life of the North Korean people and security in the region will continue to be lost.
Second, a summit-centric approach that hinges heavily on meetings between the two countries’ top leaders is bound to stumble. A better approach would intensify talks at lower levels, move gradually, and allow for mini-breakthroughs to happen at the lower levels. A first step would be the exchange of liaison offices to facilitate more communications and mutual understanding. This step can be taken without sanctions lifting and denuclearization, and an agreement to do so can be signed without a summit.
Ending hostility between North Korea and the United States, denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and bringing a better life to the North Korean people is a long process. But it does not have to be too long, and it can be made shorter by learning from past failures.
Alexander L. Vuving is Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own. He tweets @Alex_Vuving.