President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shocked audiences around the world last week when they hastily ended a much-hyped second meeting in Vietnam. Many had been expecting the pair to declare the end of the Korean War, announce diplomatic liaison offices, and agree to concrete steps towards North Korean denuclearization. Trump sought some sort of mega-settlement with Kim—“the big deal,” as National Security Advisor John Bolton termed it. The president wanted Kim to be “all in” in the words of a senior state department official.
That didn’t happen.
And it seems the US side knew that the North Koreans would not offer to denuclearize under the terms Trump wanted, but went ahead with the summit anyway. National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested in an interview with CBS that the US side believed that Kim’s position may change on the spot. Bolton said: “I mean it’s not unusual in these circumstances to find that there are additional concessions that the other side might make.”
US officials say the North Koreans wanted an overly generous rollback of economic sanctions, but didn’t offer up enough concessions. North Koreans, meanwhile, say they only wanted limited sanctions relief and agreed to significant steps toward denuclearization.
What is clear is that standard summit operating procedure was turned on its head. Instead of being simply a public relations exercise—a chance for Trump and Kim to shake hands, smile for the cameras, and sign pre-arranged agreements—the talks in Hanoi turned into real negotiations, ones that revealed a yawning gap between the two sides. Both US and North Korean negotiators signaled that talks will continue, but with the US presidential election beginning to gear up, there are serious questions about how Trump can salvage his signature foreign policy effort. The Bulletin talked with David Kim, a North Korea watcher and research analyst at the Stimson Center, about why the talks broke down and what happens next.
The two sides played down the idea that the summit was a failure—neither would really admit that things didn’t go well, would they?
Yeah [the North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs said] this was a missed opportunity, one in a thousand years. She also said, according to reports, Kim Jong-un now is re-thinking his negotiating style. He’s reconsidering the negotiations that he had with President Trump…The main thing to understand here is they promised another meeting. There’s going to be a third summit at some point.
Aren’t these deals worked out before summits? What happened?
[The North Koreans] didn’t define sanctions [relief], until, let’s say a week ago. And I don’t know at what point they indicated the five [United Nations] Security Council resolutions…the last five that really put the pressure campaign on…oil, coal, iron, seafood, you name it, everything that really hit things that were not technology…
There’s 21 [UN Security Council] resolutions. The five [the North Koreans are] indicating are the most important because it limits really a broad range of things that they can export and [put controls on] those. [The resolutions before the five most recent], those resolutions really only hit the technology aspect of their weapons program–their ability to further develop their WMD program.
They’re not separate from each other, according to other experts on UN security council resolutions. They’re all kind of put in together. If you separate, you can’t separate one from the other. If you lift one than you have to lift all of them. So Trump, I think in that respect, what he was saying was accurate–that North Korea wanted all sanctions essentially lifted.
Are you surprised that the two sides didn’t release a joint statement?
I was surprised but I wasn’t shocked, if that makes sense. In my mind, I would have wanted it, but it wouldn’t have made sense to declare an end to the Korean war and opening liaison offices when they didn’t have any concrete steps toward denuclearization or even a definition of [denuclearization] because that’s the core of the negotiation from the US side.
Of course we want that to include confidence-building measures and trust, but what [I wrote about in my article for the Bulletin] is that this has to happen in parallel. It has to be tit-for-tat reciprocal actions, trust building, and denuclearization. We can’t forget either.
[A peace declaration] would have been trust-building, but it would have left out denuclearization. Trump couldn’t come home with that kind of agreement.
What happens next?
Let’s say we get to a technical agreement. Trump, if his definition is “let’s just go all or nothing because I want to denuclearize so I can win the election,” then the negotiators have spent all this time negotiating something that could work and help get towards confidence-building and real partial denuclearization, but Trump can come because he has that bro-mance with Kim and ask for more.
I don’t think he will. Back in the States people are calling [the summit] a failure—[although] of course his base is giving him kudos for walking away from a bad deal—but overall the optics aren’t good. He spent millions of taxpayer money. He’s praised this since the State of the Union: “We’re going to meet again, and we’re going to get a deal.” And the deal included, from my understanding, a declaration of peace. which would have been huge. I think it would have been a security guarantee and a confidence-building measure. And it included liaison offices, which is another confidence building measure…
[The principle US negotiator Stephen Beigun] said [at Stanford University] that “we have other options, too.” Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s statement this year, “we’ll find a new way”—if the US isn’t willing to consider corresponding concessions to our demands…That new way was never defined. Is that a military option? What do you mean by that?
But a lot of realists and pessimists are saying that’s going back to “fire and fury”—continuing to really ramp up the WMD program, continuing to test their ballistic missiles.
That’s the ultimate test. If they start up their tests, that can quickly escalate. This happened in the Leap Day Agreement where we had a deal, but because of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday they launched a satellite. The US said, “you’re launching ballistic missile technology—dual use ballistic missile technology. And that’s that scuttled the Leap Day Agreement.
I want to believe they are going to continue their moratorium. But it’s been promised in the past and they’ve reneged in the past.
Editor’s note: This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.