Editor’s Note: Looking for more opinions on where we go after the Hanoi summit? Check out all 80 expert takes on where U.S-North Korea relations go next here.
Where do U.S.-North Korea relations go in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit?
Donald Trump’s dealings with other countries cannot be explained by conventional concepts of international relations. His transient feelings based on long-held prejudices and the moment they intersect with events determine his policies. His unwillingness to take advice leaves Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton swinging in the breeze. Both have clearly had difficulty supporting Trump’s walking away from the summit. Pompeo’s agenda seems to be staying in Trump’s good graces, but Bolton is willing to move toward war, hence his push for heavier sanctions.
Thus, it is difficult to predict American actions. Trump seems content with any outcome that allows him to proclaim that he is doing the best job ever. His approach is like a blustering real-estate negotiation; he does not understand international nuclear negotiations.
Kim Jong-un seems to have wanted to strike a deal that would lift sanctions, even a partial deal. Trump’s rebuff provides him no way forward in negotiations. Trump operates on emotion, while Kim strategizes. Differences between them include the definition of “denuclearization” and whether to negotiate step-by-step or wrap up the whole deal at once.
Activity at Sohae, a launch site for satellites rather than ICBMs, may be a warning that Kim is willing to resume missile testing. Although Trump proclaimed before the Hanoi summit that North Korean denuclearization would move forward, he seems not to see the breakdown of those talks as a failure.
The disjoint between Kim’s strategy and Trump’s emotions can lead to a harsh break. It’s not clear what it would take to convince Trump that his strategy is not working. Bolton will press him for more aggressive actions, but Trump doesn’t consistently listen to any advisor.
North Korea continues to build up its nuclear arsenal. If a satellite is launched from Sohae, does that breach whatever agreement Trump and Kim came to at Singapore? If Trump ignores it, will that provoke Kim to escalate to an ICBM test? Will we go back to “fire and fury?”
The usual strategic calculations do not apply to Trump’s actions, but Kim is acting strategically. Kim has emphasized that North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal without thoroughgoing security assurances. Trump and his team continue to insist on North Korean disarmament before they will offer specifics.
When the break comes, we can hope it will be peaceful.
Cheryl Rofer is a chemist writing on national security issues, nature, science, and women's issues. She writes at Nuclear Diner and Balloon Juice.