Hopes for a repeat of the Singapore magic were dashed this week when the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was cut short after the two men failed to find common ground. Trump refused to accede to Kim’s demand for an end to economic sanctions before North Korea fully denuclearized. While Trump would not commit to a third summit, he added that the two men parted on good terms. While we lament the breakdown, Trump’s commitment to a good deal is to be applauded.
Going into the Hanoi meeting, there was widespread belief that the Singapore summit had yielded meager results. The declaration signed by the two men lacked detail — to the point that there was genuine confusion about whether Pyongyang had in fact agreed to give up its nuclear weapons — and North Korea had made few meaningful concessions. There was concern that Trump had committed to a personal relationship with Kim that would prove more important than actual progress toward denuclearization and that a refusal to admit failure would oblige the president to agree to a bad deal at their second meeting.
To his credit, those fears proved ungrounded. Kim said he was prepared to denuclearize — in principle — but, Trump said, Kim insisted on the lifting of all economic sanctions against his country in exchange for the closure of just one nuclear facility. Trump explained that Kim was “willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.” Trump told reporters after the talks broke down that “sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”
North Korean officials disputed that characterization. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho countered that Pyongyang only wanted “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon plant, the main — and only known — facility that the country has to enrich fissile material.
The president was right. No deal is better than a bad deal and while the suspension of North Korean nuclear and missile tests is valuable, the most fundamental issue is whether Kim has committed to denuclearization. After the Singapore meeting, there were suspicions that Kim had done no such thing, and Trump appears to have confirmed as much in Hanoi, when he conceded that Kim “has a certain vision” and “it’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago.” For his part, Kim said that he was ready to denuclearize, at least in principle, adding that “if I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
While some observers point to that statement as a reason to be optimistic, it is not necessarily correct. Kim has gotten a lot from just meeting with the president of the United States. His two summits with Trump have provided him with a stature and legitimacy that his father and grandfather never obtained when they led North Korea. The U.S. side is delighted to have the continuing suspension of nuclear and missile tests, and negotiations will continue. According to a statement released by the White House, the two governments “look forward to meeting in the future.”
Hopefully, Trump has learned his lesson and will go into future negotiations with more preparation and leave less for him to wrap up in the final discussions. North Korea may not oblige, however, and likely will continue to hold out in working-level talks in the hope that Trump will be more pliant than his negotiators. Ultimately, given the failure of this summit — and there is no other accurate description for the meeting — Trump is unlikely to attempt another meeting before the 2020 presidential election.
That would fit with Trump’s insistence that he is in “no rush” to make a deal. He explained that “we want to do the right deal. Speed is not important.” He is wrong. Speed is important, if only because the longer that Kim has a nuclear stockpile, the more the rest of the world is habituated to think of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Kim is betting on the gradual acceptance of that status; his readiness to abstain from nuclear and missile tests is part of that strategy: It contributes to the image of him as a responsible nuclear proliferator who can be trusted to possess such weapons.
That is unacceptable. Intelligence shows that Kim has been expanding his arsenal of nuclear weapons. He has and will retain the ability to threaten Japan and South Korea, even if his capability to threaten the U.S. homeland is more questionable. Trump was right to demand more of North Korea. He must use his “warm relationship” with Kim to make genuine progress in denuclearization — but good feelings about his counterpart must not substitute for hard-nosed calculations of national interest. The citizens of the U.S. and America’s allies expect no less.