The summit is in the eye of the beholder

By Thomas Gaulkin | February 28, 2019

It was cold when the Hanoi summit began. By the time it ended, the temperature had risen, but for anyone paying attention, it felt even colder.

The exact moment the world began to suspect something was off came while journalists waited at Hanoi’s Metropole hotel—the summit venue—for the start of an already delayed working lunch between the US and North Korean delegations. A pool video feed patiently observed a door, while some veteran journalist told a story over the camera’s open mic about a fist-fight back in 1994—the year Robert Gallucci negotiated the landmark US-North Korea Agreed Framework. Suddenly, a Trump staffer interrupted, unseen: “Ok, everyone. There has been a slight program change.” The camera shook a bit, and then it was:

Let’s freeze on that for a second. It’s arguably the moment that one of the most significant diplomatic opportunities—for declaring peace on the Korean peninsula, ending seven decades of conflict and isolation, and devising a plan for a world with one less nuclear state—vanished quietly away, like the meal that was never served for the working lunch.

The next couple of hours spawned furious speculation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since, well, Donald Trump’s last meeting with Kim Jong-un, when reporters suddenly learned that a surprise agreement was going to be signed. Finally, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emerged to provide some relatively vague opening remarks about the decision to cut things short. (Trump actually kept anxious journalists chewing their erasers with a few remarks on Venezuela and the dangerous escalations over Kashmir, before turning to North Korea—as if this was just some ordinary daily press conference, not the premature end of negotiations for what had been described by some as the “deal of the century.”) Then they took questions. 

After some warm-ups that offered a general diagnosis but little specific information about what killed the talks, David Sanger of The New York Times managed to coax some details out of Trump, who revealed that one wrench in the works was a secret facility called Kangsun that, Sanger explains, is believed to be a nuclear enrichment plant. After that, more details trickled out, but the whole event lasted about half as long as the crazy spectacle Trump presided over after the Singapore summit last April. 

The main impression Trump gave was that the meetings were friendly and “a very productive time,” but that the North Koreans wanted too much: all economic sanctions lifted “in their entirety,” in exchange for the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The upshot: “Sometimes you have to walk.” 

But some 12 hours later, a rare press conference in Pyongyang forced headline writers to change course: “After Trump-Kim talks collapse, each side has a different story” said The Washington Post. “Trump’s Talks With Kim Jong-un Collapse, and Both Sides Point Fingers,”  wrote the New York Times. 

The Washington Post noted that Ri Yong Ho, the foreign minister for North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) explained that the North Korean delegation only asked their American counterparts for “partial” sanctions relief, specifically the lifting of five (of 11) UN sanctions that “hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people.” The talks failed, he said, because the United States moved the goal posts. 

With those contradictory stories circulating, one thing most observers are certain of is that the White House came to Hanoi unprepared. staff writer Alex Ward, who first reported a list of proposed points for an agreement (the signing of which had already been included in the official White House summit schedule), wrote “Dealing with North Korea is hard… It’s therefore not right to say Trump “failed” in his efforts, because the task is so gargantuan. … But the president is at fault for one important thing: trusting his gut over the advice of experts and seasoned professionals about how to conduct high-stakes diplomacy.”

Among those seasoned professionals was Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea who helped pave the way for this week’s meetings. In its autopsy of the summit, The Guardian pointed out that Biegun ”was sidelined at the summit, his place at the table taken by the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who has minimal foreign policy experience.” The New York Times published an annotated Doug Mills photo of the negotiating table that drives the point home.

Another seasoned US diplomat weighed in at The Hill. Christopher Hill, chief negotiator with North Korea under George W. Bush, admonished Trump for his unorthodox behavior.The president likes to think outside the box, but he should bear in mind that sometimes the box is there for a reason,” Hill wrote. “President Trump and Secretary Mike Pompeo have made the claim that they will not repeat the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. More accurately, none of their predecessors ever made the mistakes the Trump administration has made.”

Stimson Center researchers Joel Wit and Jenny Town summed up it up a bit more kindly at 38 North: “This isn’t the first summit meeting ever to fail. It’s just the first US-DPRK summit that didn’t work out.”

In his New York Times recap, Sanger warned that by making the negotiations so much about themselves, Trump and Kim might now feel compelled to raise the stakes going forward. “That could herald a new era of nuclear tensions,” Sanger writes, “at a moment when a major arms control deal with Russia has been declared dead, when India and Pakistan are once again reminding the world of the risks when two nuclear-armed states start skirmishing, and when Iran is weighing restarting its nuclear fuel production.”

The challenge of figuring out what all of this means will continue to be taken up by members of the media. During the press conference, Trump tried—despite evident jet lag and unusual listlessness—to persuade the gathered “enemies of the people” that the summit had been productive, even with the unsatisfying outcome. From the commentary in the last 24 hours, it doesn’t look like anyone bought that. 

But at least one person came away feeling pretty good from Hanoi: Washington Post reporter David Nakamura, in the White House press pool, became the first foreign journalist to throw the North Korean dictator a question and get a response. His justified exhilaration about that moment stands in for what many around the world, had hoped for, but missed, at the summit.

“The moment Kim began to turn toward his interpreter was the moment I felt a sense of possibility. And once he began to speak, in his surprisingly deep voice, the Disney-like veneer faded,” Nakamura wrote. “The bubble had been pierced, a reclusive control freak had revealed something, however small—the fundamental currency between a reporter and his subject had been exchanged. Later in the day, Kim would be asked more pointed questions and provide some answers. And he would not get a nuclear deal with Trump, as the talks collapsed.”

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Martin Hellman
5 years ago

The history of our relations with NK explains the failure and why “the box” does need to be broken out of. Trump was right to disregard the Beltway’s conventional wisdom and meet with Kim anyway. He was wrong to expect they would give up their nuclear weapons based purely on promises, not actions. Here are the key reasons: Exhibit A: Under the 1994 Agreed Framework (our major nuclear agreement with NK), they put their plutonium stockpile under international control and were unable to do their first nuclear test until 2006, four years after Pres. Bush killed the agreement. Exhibit B:… Read more »