The Failure of US-North Korea Talks in Vietnam: Maybe Not Such a Bad Thing?

https://vn.usembassy.gov/20190227-remarks-president-trump-chairman-kim-11-conversation/
Source: US Embassy & Consulate in Vietnam

Well, I certainly didn’t expect the summit in Hanoi to go the way it did. When it was first announced that Trump and Kim Jong-Un would have another nuclear summit, I (and many, many others) thought it would end similarly to last year’s Singapore Summit. After all, Trump has continued to claim that the North Korean nuclear threat was over (despite being contradicted by his own Secretary of State), and apparently still hadn’t realized that his definition of denuclearization is not the same as North Korea’s. When you consider that he’s also dealing with a string of failures at home (losing the House to the Democrats in November, triggering the longest government shutdown in American history, needing to use emergency powers to build a small section of his border wall, and his former attorney Michael Cohen testifying in Congress), it wouldn’t have been surprising for Trump to give up a lot of leverage to North Korea while getting almost nothing in return just so that he could claim a win. These expectations weren’t helped by reports that once again, Trump had opted against the lengthy preparations that states normally do for summits in favour of apparently trying to woo Kim Jong-Un in one-on-one discussions.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the first headlines that came up this morning instead stated that the summit had been called off and that both delegations left before they could even have lunch! The exact reason for why this occurred still remains unclear. In a press conference, Trump claimed that Kim Jong-Un asked for total sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility (which has been the cornerstone of the North Korean nuclear weapons program). Instead, Trump apparently insisted that further sanctions relief would require verification that all nuclear facilities in North Korea are shut down, including covert ones, which Kim and other North Korean officials refused to do. North Korea’s version of events instead blames the US for turning down its request for partial sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down Yongbyon. The issue with that version of events, however, is that North Korea wanted some of the toughest sanctions against it lifted, which still makes it seem as though it was too much for the US to accept without further denuclearization efforts.

While the collapse of the summit is something of a failure for the Trump administration, there are some positive notes to it. Despite the fingerpointing between the US and North Korea, it seems clear from both versions that the US was being presented with an unpalatable deal: whether some or all of the sanctions against North Korea were lifted in exchange for Yongbyon being dismantled, it doesn’t change the fact that this wouldn’t be a major setback for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program at this point. Walking away with no deal in that case would actually prove to be better than giving up an important source of leverage in negotiations with North Korea. Secondly, this doesn’t mean that arms control diplomacy between the US and North Korea is doomed as a result: despite some worrisome initial statements by high-ranking North Korean officials (including Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho), it still seems that Kim Jong-Un is willing to continue negotiating. Trump and other US officials, meanwhile, have expressed similar interest in meeting again in the future, suggesting that negotiations are still salvageable. Obviously, much of this embarrassment could have been avoided if Trump opted for proper negotiations and a summit where a largely finalized deal would have been signed instead of attempting to wing it (which just ends up feeling like someone leaving their homework for the last minute). But it’s not a total disaster, either.

It is always possible that tensions flare up again to the point of going back to the “fire and fury” days of 2016, naturally. But at the moment, it seems more likely that future negotiations will be a little more restrained in what is expected from them.

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