Week of March 1, 2019

What Happened at the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi?


The mood of the meeting went from optimistic on Wednesday to collapse on Thursday.  Trump said, “There were several options but this time we decided not to do any of the options. Sometimes you have to walk”

In short, the disagreements centered around how much sanctions relief NK would get in return for ridding itself of nuclear infrastructure.

While North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, travelled back to Pyongyang to report to the generals, security police commanders, and other members of the governing elite on what happened, North Korea held an unusual press conference.

During a midnight news conference that was ostensibly intended as a debriefing, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contradicted Trump’s narrative about what prompted him to abruptly walk away from the talks in Vietnam.

According to Ri, the North offered a “realistic proposal”: In return for partial sanctions relief (Trump claimed that Kim had demanded “all sanctions lifted in their entirety” presumably including both US and UN sanctions). Namely, that Kim had proposed the dismantling of its plutonium and uranium processing facilities at Yongbyon in the presence of US experts, in exchange for partial relief.

General Vincent Brooks (Army retired), former commander, U.S. Forces Korea said “It’s another step in diplomacy. The United States did not get the disclosure it wanted…I think this is a clear indication of where we are and how many more steps there have to be. Remember, this is a country that doesn’t know anything about trust.”

Senate Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer praised Trump on the floor of the Senate for walking away instead of accepting an inferior deal that would have made the US less safe in the long run.

Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “It’s good the president didn’t give him anything for the little he was proposing…Diplomacy is important; we all support it.”

The Washington Post explained the difficult issues this way:

“Trump said Kim promised he would not conduct missile launches or test nuclear weapons.  And he said Kim was willing to close the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex, the site of North Korea’s main nuclear reactor and its only source of plutonium to make bombs.  But Trump said other covert facilities to enrich uranium had not been offered up.”

“Trump zeroed in on sanctions as the key sticking point in his talks with Kim.

“It was about the sanctions,” he said.  “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.  They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.” …

“Chairman Kim and myself, we want to do the right deal.  Speed is not important,” he said.”

“And Kim said he was ready to denuclearize, at least in principle.  “If I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he said through an interpreter.”

“Asked if he were confident that the pair would reach a deal, Kim was equally guarded.

“It’s too early to tell.  I won’t prejudge,” Kim said in reply to the question from a Washington Post reporter, a rare response from a North Korean leader.  “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”

Kim also promised that he would not resume nuclear and missile tests – the basis for the detente between the two countries – and Trump said he would take Kim at his word.

It is clear from The Washington Post reporting and Kim’s language that the talks didn’t collapse into a refusal to proceed.  Both leaders remained cordial and continue to affirm their mutual goal of getting to a deal.

What few noted was that this was also the first time a North Korean leader has ever faced a press conference with Western media asking questions.

“Walking Away” as a Negotiation Ploy

Trump signaled that he is not in a hurry for a deal — any deal — at the expense of getting a less than satisfactory result.  He set the expectation that, while optimistic about eventually getting to his goal of denuclearization, it might be a longer process than the short timeframe the media would prefer.

It’s also important to remember that “walking away” from negotiations is an important part of getting a deal satisfactory to both sides.  President Reagan walked out on the Reykjavik Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986 – while being ridiculed for walking out by the same media attacking Trump today.

After the negotiations broke down without a final agreement, Reagan wrote that he left the meeting knowing how close they had come to achieving his long goal of eliminating the threat of nuclear destruction, and that this was the angriest moment of his career.

Reykjavik was a critical event that eventually led to a deal between the two super powers.  A year after Reykjavik the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for the first time eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons.  The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed a few years later during President H.W Bush’s term.

Many Trump’s supporters asserting none of this progress would have been possible without the willingness to walk away when it appeared that a deal wasn’t the cards.

In the end, any deal between the US and North Korea must be able to receive the support of a majority of people – the ruling elite and people in North Korea and the congress and voters in the US.  In the case of the US-Soviet agreements, they had to pass muster with the Senate.  If Reagan hadn’t been willing to walk away, he would have been forced to go to the Senate with a deal that would have likely been rejected by the Senate.

This process isn’t limited to the US.  Kim faces the same problems in North Korea.

What’s Next?

Trump supporters and few of Washington pundits rushed to praise him and cover his failure to reach an agreement. They advanced the notion that many people wrongly assume that because North Korea is an absolute dictatorship, Kim can do anything he wishes, and his putative subordinates will go along with it.  Contrary to American perceptions, North Korea isn’t a kingdom with Kim sitting as an absolute monarch.  They are claiming that the young leader depends on the loyalty of the commanders of troops and police who have the weapons that could overthrow him and install someone more to their liking. They conclude that this threat is why he had his half-brother assassinated at Kuala Lumpur Airport.  But if the military and security force commanders see an existential threat to their survival in power, they could still overthrow Kim and install another leader, finding grounds to claim legitimacy.

They assert that when Kim returns to Pyongyang, he must deliver the message that Trump won’t settle for anything less than what he demands.

They are hoping that Kim did take note of Hanoi while there.  Half a century ago, Hanoi was an enemy of the US.  Today it is experiencing economic growth and is a key part of Asia’s attempt to curb Chinese ambitions.

The thinking in the administration circle is in Making some sort of deal with the US promises to give North Korea some flexibility in its international relations.  Currently, NK is dependent on China for economic and foreign policy support.  It relies on China for the majority of its food, heavy equipment, and fuel.  In fact, 90% of NK’s international trade is with China.

However, if NK can make a deal with the US, it can loosen its economic ties to China and improve its relations with South Korea and Japan.

However, the first step is to rid itself of its nuclear infrastructure.  That will eliminate the sanctions and encourage investment from other nations.  Then, finally after 70 years, NK can join the community of nations.

That is undoubtedly an attractive scenario for Kim – but will it be attractive to the other leaders in North Korea?

Trump continues to assert that pressure has brought Kim to the verge of abandoning his nuclear weapons, or “denuking,” as Trump calls it. For Trump, Kim must give everything up and then accept Trump’s promises of generosity.

Kim, by contrast, believes that the successful tests of thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs that can strike the United States have forced Trump to come to him, offering to end the sanctions. To make Kim’s rule and his possession of the bomb more palatable, he has declared an end to nuclear and missile tests and is willing to offer a variety of gestures that mimic disarmament. The world must live with North Korea’s bomb, but Kim won’t rub it in anyone’s face.

 The Washington post concluded:” This is not a difference in perspective that can be fudged with careful phrasing. One side must give on the core question of whether North Korea’s isolation can end before it undergoes nuclear disarmament. Since it would be utter madness to try to topple a nuclear-armed dictator, it seems obvious which side should yield: Trump and the national security community in Washington must abandon the broad, bipartisan consensus that North Korea must disarm before anything else. This is, after all, what nuclear weapons do. They trap us together with our enemies, like scorpions in a bottle, creating a shared danger that compels us to work together to advance our mutual interest in survival.”

When President Richard M. Nixon opened relations with China, he did not demand that Mao Zedong abandon the bomb. Mao would simply have refused, and the historic moment would have been lost. Trump faces the same fundamental choice.