Failure in Hanoi. What Happened and What’s Next?

The Trump-Kim Summit brought with it a series of disappointments. Andy Laub analyzes the events from last week and what to expect going forward.


Despite all the fanfare leading up to a second summit between U.S President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, the two never made it to lunch on the second day. Instead, President Trump left early. He thought they were headed for a bad deal, noting, “Sometimes you just have to walk away.”Mr. Trump was right to walk away. Indeed, what was on the table from the North Koreans would have been a very bad deal; North Korea (DPRK) wanted all sanctions lifted in exchange for the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, North Korea’s most prominent nuclear site. Although North Korea claims they only requested that five out of the eleven sanctions from the United Nations be lifted, those resolutions are key parts of the sanctions regime against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; lifting them would have made it vastly easier for North Korean to further expand their program. When thinking about sanctions relief at this level of talks, a more humanitarian perspective would allow both Koreas to continue joint economic projects together, without giving away everything up front. 

Diplomacy does not happen in a vacuum; it takes patience and a well-detailed process from experts who understand the core issues. Mr. Trump was naïve to think that  a “great relationship” with Kim Jong-Un would turn into a comprehensive disarmament agreement with North Korea. Any bilateral relationship is about much more than the two leaders at the top, which is why top-down diplomacy that begins diplomatic processes is a recipe for failure. Mr. Trump frequently likes to blame his predecessors on their failures to reach a deal regarding North Korea, even tweetingbefore the summit, “So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!” Yet it seems Mr. Trump fell into the same North Korea trap as his predecessors when it came to both sides’ differences on denuclearization. The American intelligence community has always said the DPRK will continue its nuclear program as it is linked directly to regime survival. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haasssummed things up well: “Things never should have reached this point. Summits at most are expected to negotiate the last 10% of a deal. The Hanoi summit appeared to have it backwards, requiring that the leaders negotiate 90% on the spot. The Hanoi summit showed the dangers of a president who over-personalizes diplomacy. Foreign policy is mostly about the details, not the chemistry.”

Haass further argued, “By overplaying his hand, Kim may have saved the president from himself. If reports were right, the U.S. was prepared to agree to offer a degree of sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea dismantling one of its enrichment facilities. But North Korea could have done this, and still maintained or even expanded its ability to enrich uranium and produce bombs and missiles.”

In fairness, however, this may have been a negotiating tactic by Trump. Walking out of negotiations can help detail the disagreements both parties have so they can regroup and come back to the negotiating table with new ideas. Trump didn’t leave in an angry rush and there wasn’t any bellicose rhetoric from Kim, so it is possible for things to continue. However, heading into a divisive election cycle and many domestic issues that consume the President back home could also lead to a loss of momentum. 

So where do we go from here? 

Keeping communication open, beyond just the two leaders is essential. As a Korea-watcher who supports diplomatic engagement, I was disappointed to see that there was no movement in establishing liaison offices between the United States and DPRK so that a steady channel of communication can continue. Thus, Stephen Biegun the able-minded Special Representative to North Korea should continue to keep his channel open with his North Korean counterpart. However, the danger now is that after two high-level summits, Kim Jong-Un could make diplomacy harder and say talks between the US and DPRK can only be between himself and Trump, because Kim wants that spotlight on the global stage as a global leader equal to the U.S President. 

Reaching out to our allies is a critical next step. The U.S. must check in with South Korea, Japan and China to reach more of a consensus on what a more realistic path for diplomacy might look like. Perhaps future meetings should take place in a more multilateral setting to bolster support from key regional players who have even more at stake in a nuclear armed North Korea. Ambassador Chris Hill, who led the six party talks with North Korea under the Bush Administration, hit on this point well:  “Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. And this was certainly the case at the #HanoiSummit2019.  But @realDonaldTrump and @SecPompeo need to give thought to broader diplomatic architecture and get regional countries more involved.”

Seeing the display of American and DPRK flags lined up together throughout the hotel and seeing the U.S President sit down with a brutal dictator can be stomach churning. Kim Jong-Un was sitting with the American President not because of good behavior but, in fact, the opposite. Kim has an illegal nuclear weapons program, threatens peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and an abhorrent human rights. Not only did President Trump not push Kim Jong-Un on human rights, he sided with him when asked about Otto Warmbier, an American college student who tragically died after being imprisoned by the North. On Warmbier’s torture and inhospitable conditions that led to his coma and eventual death, Trump stated, “[Kim Jong-Un] tells me he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” Such a grotesque statement further erodes American credibility on the world stage as a supposed leader of democracy and human rights. Mr. Trump had to walk back the statement after a flurry of rightful outrage. 

In the end, President Trump traveled 8,000 miles for nothing and we are no closer to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Time will only tell how things are going to continue. 

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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