A Stumble at Hanoi, but Negotiations Remain on the Agenda

President Trump’s hasty decision to pull the plug on the Hanoi Summit ahead of schedule came as a stunning surprise. The feeling of disappointment in those who were hoping for success contrasted with the sense of relief in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which remains steadfastly opposed to any improvement in relations.

The widespread assumption going into the summit was that the Trump administration would be able to buy off North Korea with diplomatic trinkets. It was thought that among these would be limited sanctions exemptions, such as allowing humanitarian organizations greater latitude to operate in North Korea. It was also anticipated that a document would be signed which would recognize that the Korean War had ended in 1953. While a peace declaration would have a symbolic “feel good” value, it would change no facts on the ground, and leave the North Koreans essentially empty-handed.

By all accounts, the North Koreans have been more clear-eyed about what they need in talks with U.S. negotiators than they had been given credit. Symbolic measures will not suffice. The North Koreans have serious and well-founded security concerns, given the various wars and military interventions the United States has launched around the world and its decades-long hostility to North Korea.

The Trump administration’s current campaign to destabilize Venezuela and substitute its handpicked lackey as that country’s president can only have further clarified thinking on security matters for the North Koreans.

A more immediate concern for North Korea is the impact of economic sanctions, which have as their aim the collective punishment of the entire population. According to a senior U.S. State Department official, during discussions on sanctions relief with their North Korean counterparts, U.S. negotiators “did our own calculations, and [the damage] tallies up to the tune of many, many billions of dollars.” North Korea’s GDP may be difficult to assess with precision, but it is estimated at around $30 billion. That places it below Vermont, which ranks dead last among U.S. states in terms of GDP. Given the economic damage/GDP ratio, it is obvious that the sanctions war is inflicting enormous hardship on the North Korean people.

According to North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, “Our proposal was that, if the U.S. lifts some of the UN sanctions, or in other words those aspects of the sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood, we will completely and permanently dismantle the production facilities of all nuclear materials, including plutonium and uranium, in the Yongbyon complex, through a joint project by technicians from our two countries, in the presence of American experts”

“They were willing to give everything, including all the facilities at Yongbyon,” revealed an unnamed source. “Not just one physical reactor, but the whole complex. They were also willing to present their willingness to fully dismantle in the form of an official document. They were getting down to business pretty seriously. And then Mr. Trump and the American side turned down the proposal and left,” to the dismay of the North Koreans.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the president to reject the North Koreans’ proposal, as facilities outside of Yongbyon were not included, and nuclear weapons and missiles would remain untocuhed. National Security Advisor John Bolton may have added objections as well, given his well-known aversion to anything other than unilateral disarmament by North Korea.

“The President in his discussions challenged the North Koreans to go bigger,” a State Department official announced. “The President encouraged Kim to go all in, and we were…prepared to go all in as well.” Trump wanted the North Koreans to put their entire program on the table in exchange for relief on economic sanctions.

From the North Korean standpoint, complete dismantlement of its nuclear program cannot come without a security guarantee. According to Foreign Minister Ri, that guarantee is “even more important” than lifting sanctions. After all, it was for security reasons that North Korea developed its nuclear program, and its security will need to be assured through other means if it denuclearizes. “Given the current level of trust between our two countries,” Ri explained, the dismantlement of the Yongbyon facility is “the biggest step toward denuclearization that we can take at the present moment.”  Trump’s proposed grand bargain failed to provide a secure basis for the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program. Also unaddressed is the concept of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is habitually interpreted in a one-sided manner in the West as applying solely to North Korea. The meaning of that term needs to be clarified through further negotiations.

The U.S. side, however, remains wedded to the idea of maximum punishment as a negotiating tool and is unwilling to grant relief on economic sanctions without North Korea’s complete denuclearization. That is the essence of the current impasse between the two sides. In an interview broadcast on Fox News, Trump said, “The sanctions are there, and I didn’t want to give up the sanctions unless we had a real program.”

It seems clear that if both parties can agree on timing and sequencing, the possibilities for progress are there, starting with a partial lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for partial denuclearization.

Although the Hanoi Summit failed to produce a concrete result, it would be incorrect to say that it failed. Diplomacy is a process, not a single event. The summit did not end in rancor, and both sides have pledged to continue negotiations. KCNA, the North Korean news agency, reported that the summit “offered an important occasion for deepening mutual respect and trust,” and it noted that President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un “agreed to keep in close touch” and “continue productive dialogues for settling the issues discussed at the Hanoi Summit.”

“They were constructive discussions,” points out a State Department official. “There’s room to continue talking.” In Mike Pompeo’s assessment, “There have been lots of things that we’ve moved forward on, and I think we have a set of shared common understandings. I’ve seen enough congruence between what the two sides are trying to accomplish. I saw the goodwill between the two leaders.”

Despite the lack of agreement, Kim reiterated his commitment to maintain a freeze on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, while the U.S. is renaming and reducing the scope of its annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises.

The main impediment to progress is U.S. bi-partisan opposition to dialogue and any reduction of tensions in East Asia. An often-repeated charge is that last year’s Singapore Summit produced no tangible result. However, the Singapore Summit was a short meeting meant to establish an agreement on intent, in which not only did North Korea promise to work toward denuclearization, but both sides committed to improve relations and build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. After decades of hostility and confrontation, the summit redirected the relationship to one of dialogue. That is no small thing. Critics who argue that detailed steps should have been drawn up in that initial meeting are, of course, intentionally distorting the nature of the meeting in an attempt to discredit the concept of U.S.-North Korea negotiations.

Similarly, those who wish to block progress can be expected to argue that the lack of an agreement at Hanoi proves that it is a mistake to meet with the North Koreans and talks must come to a halt. Nevertheless, U.S. and North Korean leaders remain invested in the process, and the less influence opponents have on U.S. negotiating strategy, the more chance of success. Moreover, although there is internal opposition from conservative forces in South Korea, the detente process between the two Koreas has developed its own momentum, which can be expected to exert a positive influence on the U.S. position. For now, there is certainly more reason for hope than despair.

Originally published at Zoom in Korea