Kim Jong Un undisputedly won the first round of summitry in Singapore last June. He was masterful at playing US President Donald Trump by pocketing a key American bargaining chip—a halt to defensive US-South Korean military exercises—without having to deliver substantive denuclearization steps. He also succeeded because his negotiators essentially compelled Washington to accept Pyongyang’s preferred language and sequence in their joint Singapore statement.
The Hanoi round was a drastically different outcome. This time, Trump checked Kim, who went home without a substantive win. (He still earned points for elevating his international profile.) North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told journalists in Hanoi that her boss seemed puzzled, unable to understand the American style of bargaining (or “calculation methods” in Korean). Rumors on the streets of Hanoi whispered about an upset North Korean leader who refused to leave his hotel room for hours and wanted to cancel the rest of this trip but could not leave Vietnam because his train was being serviced. Perhaps Kim underestimated his ability this time to manipulate a Korea-ignorant Trump into accepting what the North called its “best offer…at this stage.” Perhaps Kim believed the American president was already in his back pocket because of Trump’s public pronouncement of “falling in love.” Perhaps someone on his negotiating team will be replaced, or worse, purged.
After the Singapore summit, North Korea tried to bypass the senior and working levels of US negotiators—what it called “headwinds,” meaning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his staff—to strike a deal directly with Trump. But perhaps Pyongyang underestimated the American headwinds’ ability to educate their boss in a manner that actually registered. It appears that Kim Jong Un might have learned the hard way what it is like dealing directly with both Trump and the United States diplomatic apparatus—each of which presents a mixed bag of cultural, political, ideological, psychological, and personality traits and differences.
It is quite tempting to assess the summit’s results through an anti-Trumpian lens. But with the stakes so high, it was prudent for Washington to walk away from a deal this time, because any deal would have been based on insufficient time for the two sides to negotiate before the summit and could have invited more risks and pitfalls than concrete progress.
Domestic US politics might have played a hand, as many pundits opined. But based on remarks from both negotiating teams, it appears there were still large gaps on fundamental key issues: no common understanding at the leader’s level on the end state for denuclearization, different expectations of what constitutes a historic or good deal, and disagreement on the value of the Yongbyon nuclear complex as a chip to trade for major sanctions relief. There was an encouraging sign after talks abruptly ended in Hanoi: Neither side will walk away from diplomacy just yet, and the public messaging from both sides was positive. But there was also a worrisome sign: the inability to announce a date, even a rough one, for negotiators to meet again.
Denuclearization and first tradeoffs. The Hanoi summit could have resulted in a smaller deal that signaled the start to a phased process. An American delegation that included 16 experts in international law, the nuclear fuel cycle, missiles, trade sanctions, and economics shows the administration was serious about making a deal. Had there been sufficient time before the summit, perhaps some mini-deal could have been struck along with a commitment to eventually conclude a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization and peace.
But there is an innate difference between negotiating at the working level and at the head-of-state level. Working-level negotiations have the space to sign smaller, incremental deals. But the summit level requires an agreement on the big picture—on end states—and official reactions from both teams suggest Kim was unable to tell Trump that he is willing to eventually scrap his entire nuclear weapons programs.
In the end, the leaders did not see eye-to-eye on what constituted a bold deal. In the run up to Hanoi, Pyongyang had called on Trump to make a “big decision” (meaning, to “go big” in English), implying a peace regime and transformed relations in return for a small denuclearization step. But when it came to the details in a tradeoff, it appeared Kim was unable to “go bigger” and “all in” as challenged by Trump by putting his nuclear weapons on the table. Such hesitation is not shocking for a regime whose very survival relies on nuclear weapons.
Instead, Pyongyang took the usual piecemeal approach, offering a testing moratorium and the dismantlement of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which produces plutonium and uranium for nuclear weapons. American negotiators say North Korea “offered closing down a portion” of Yongbyon while North Korean negotiators claim they had offered “the entire nuclear facilities” in the complex. If the latter is true, this is more meaningful than a portion of Yongbyon, but Trump was, surprisingly, correct when he said that Yongbyon alone is not enough. The shuttering of Yongbyon is certainly enough to offer as one of the first steps in a phased process of denuclearization. But the North’s asking price—the lifting of key UN sanctions—was disproportionate. And what Kim offered was not enough to signal, to an American president, North Korea’s willingness to eventually denuclearize.
While it is a positive sign that Kim said he will continue to refrain from nuclear and missile flight tests after Hanoi, this is neither a major concession nor anything new. In the past, Pyongyang did not test nuclear devices or missiles while it was engaged in dialogue, but did revert back to testing when it was upset in negotiations and walked away. Today, it is unclear whether the regime values more testing because Kim’s 2018 New Year’s Day address claimed his country no longer needs to test parts and will simply “mass produce” nuclear weapons. From a technological standpoint, Pyongyang would need to test missiles to perfect its reentry vehicle and the accuracy of long-range ballistic missiles.
The truth behind sanctions. It was clear from Kim Jong Un’s address this January that his priority is sanctions relief. Official comments from Washington and Pyongyang following the Hanoi summit showed they were unable to agree on the price tag for lifting US sanctions. A senior State Department official said that North Korea asked for all sanctions imposed since March 2016 to be lifted, which includes restrictions on “a broad range of products including metals, raw materials, transportation, seafood, coal exports, [and] refined petroleum.” On the other hand, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho clarified in Hanoi that Pyongyang is asking only for the lifting of five out of 11 UN Security Council sanctions that were imposed between 2016 and 2017 and that affect North Korea’s “civilian economy and people’s livelihoods.”
But profit made from these exports, nearly $3 billion in annual revenues, are believed to fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—the very basis for UN sanctions since March 2016—and they are not targeted at civilians as the North claims. While more can and should be done to exclude restrictions on humanitarian assistance, including vital vaccines, that can get caught in nuclear politics, current UN and US sanctions allow for timely sanctions exemptions and waivers for humanitarian purposes.
North Korea’s request confirms that earlier sanctions were not comprehensive and effective. The sanctions imposed on the regime since March 2016—starting with UN Security Council Resolution 2270 passed after Pyongyang’s January 6, 2016 nuclear test—was the beginning of the most comprehensive sanctions the United States has ever placed on the regime in regard to its nuclear weapons programs, proliferation, illicit activities, and human rights violations, among others. They are intended not only to incentivize Pyongyang to change course, but also because the regime’s byungjin strategy (parallel economic and nuclear development) had blurred the line between the sources of funding for its nuclear weapons program and economic development.
From Washington’s perspective, North Korea needs to take denuclearization steps that are significant enough to justify the lifting of these targeted sanctions. Proportionate bargaining is essential. It would have been politically difficult for Washington to accept a Yongbyon-for-sanctions-only deal and sell it to the American Congress and public when the world is aware of existing facilities outside of Yongbyon that are believed to be critical engines of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.
This is why Washington may have needed an extra token gesture—whether it might have been disclosing an undeclared site or agreeing to submit a declaration of all fissile material production facilities anywhere in North Korea—in addition to Yongbyon to signal Pyongyang’s intent to eventually reach complete denuclearization. A senior State Department official was correct to say that for Washington to “give many, many billions of dollars in sanctions relief would in effect put us in a position of subsidizing the ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea” if Yongbyon dismantlement and a testing freeze were the only offers on the table. Lifting key sanctions in a disproportionate bargain might have disincentivized Pyongyang from returning to serious negotiations on the rest of its nuclear weapons programs.
Summitry and the way forward. Since Singapore, the United States and North Korea have approached negotiations from different cultural directions. Pyongyang emphasized relationship building as a way to address and resolve differences; Washington embarked on an American and Western style of business-like negotiations that aim straight for the central issue. Trump later joined the relationship game for reasons unknown to the public. But summits are not granted the luxury of time and relationship-growing pains because of the resources required to bring leaders together and global expectations for concrete results.
As risky as relationship summitry is, it can still be used to America’s advantage and perhaps yield substantive results, because of the nature of the North Korean regime and its cultural approach. The best way to understand Pyongyang is to hear Kim Jong Un’s thoughts directly; the best way to relay American thinking is to tell Kim directly; and the best way to seek any change or action is to deal directly with the regime’s sole decision-maker. But if relationship summitry eventually falls apart, there is nowhere else to go—unless both leaders, especially Kim Jong Un, give the directive for a bottom-up approach that keeps diplomacy alive. Prospects for such are currently murky; a lull in negotiations could last months or even years. This is where South Korea comes in, as it is already scrambling to prevent a prolonged pause.
The longer it takes to conclude a real nuclear agreement between the United States and North Korea, the more time Pyongyang has to produce nuclear weapons. As detailed as the official remarks were from both negotiating teams in Hanoi, many questions remain about the exchange between the two leaders and their negotiation boundaries. Could they have at least reached an agreement on establishing a negotiating process to achieve a road map toward denuclearization and peace, or did Trump need an agreement up front on a final destination before proceeding with interim steps? Once Kim fully processes his Hanoi conversation with Trump and overcomes any culture shocks he might have felt, will he be interested in giving summitry another try? Or, will he seek a “new way” to achieve Korean peace and stability, as he proclaimed on January 1, if Washington does not lift sanctions?
Both leaders have already embarked on an unconventional course. Perhaps this is when another love letter from Trump might actually serve a purpose.
Editor’s Note: Bulletin columnist Duyeon Kim was in Hanoi as a (one-time) CBS News contributor, providing on-air commentary and off-air news guidance during the second Trump-Kim summit. Her pre-summit column from Hanoi can be found here. She was in Singapore with CBS in the same capacity for the first summit.
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.