President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi from February 27–28 skidded to an abrupt halt the morning of the second and final day. Trump had rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in exchange for significant sanctions relief. At the same time, Kim said no to Trump’s proposal for denuclearization in one big bite—an epic trade of North Korea’s entire nuclear weapons program for an end to American-led sanctions. They canceled lunch and parted ways.
Trump’s offer appeared to revert to the hardline policies of his predecessors. But, Trump’s offer was so divorced from the reality of the previous eight months of North Korean refusals to give Washington a nuclear declaration, let alone the nuclear jewels, that it was more likely posturing. Escalate-to-de-escalate, to push the North to negotiate seriously. Significantly, since Hanoi, statements by Trump and his team, coupled with North Korea’s fundamentally positively summit coverage, indicate that neither side perceives the other’s position to have hardened to the point of no return and that there is still a deal to be had. The challenge is to identify practical steps to get the talks back on track.
U.S. Posturing, Not Policy Change
It would be logical to conclude that America’s North Korea policy had shifted dramatically in Hanoi. After all, the deal Trump proposed to Kim bore no resemblance to the Joint Statement they signed in Singapore last June, or the policy Stephen Biegun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, outlined six months later. Biegun told an audience at Stanford University on January 31 that denuclearization would no longer be the starting point for U.S.-North Korea talks, and that the United States would be as attentive to the soft processes of relationship-building as it would be to the hard processes of denuclearization. Washington would also pursue “simultaneously and in parallel” all commitments made in Singapore—a nod to the step-by-step approach Pyongyang has long advocated. A month later, and barely a week after the summit, the United States clarified that the denuclearization of North Korea must precede all other steps and would encompass all the North’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)—in other words, both its nuclear and its chemical and biological weapons programs.
The apparent reversal in U.S. policy in the space of a month strains credulity. Just two weeks before the summit, Trump was “in no rush” on denuclearization and said “we just don’t want testing,” yet these statements were inconsistent with his hard line in Hanoi. More to the point, the North Koreans did not perceive a radical shift in U.S. policy, or they would have accused Washington of moving the goalposts. Instead, they blamed the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor for creating an atmosphere of hostility.
After the summit, moreover, Trump acknowledged Kim’s willingness to denuclearize “a large portion” of what the United States wants, and he and Secretary of State Pompeo took pains to characterize the talks as productive and the stalemate as friendly—demonstrating continued U.S. investment in the process and Trump’s relationship with Kim. Pyongyang, despite recently threatening to walk away from talks and resume nuclear and missile tests, also praised the relationship between the two leaders, clearly leaving the door open to negotiations.
Next Steps to Get U.S.-North Korea Negotiations Back on Track
The question now is, whose text to use as a basis for negotiations. Of the two proposals on the table, North Korea’s is more realistic. Ambassador Chris Hill, who headed North Korea negotiations during the Bush administration, recently argued that Kim’s offer is worth exploring. He is right. Dismantling plutonium production at Yongbyon would eliminate one path to a nuclear bomb and is the starting point for addressing all fissile material production. Putting facilities on the block for dismantlement, verified by international inspectors, is also more important, initially, than obtaining a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear programs, which would give the United States a piece of paper, but nothing concrete. Moreover, allowing inspectors back into the country after a ten-year hiatus would also be a tangible sign of the North’s commitment to denuclearization, as would be its decision to evict them.
The burden is on Pyongyang to define its proposal in sufficient detail to form a credible basis for talks. North Korea has a history of dragging out negotiations and backing away from its commitments. That is why any U.S.-North Korea engagement is met with deep skepticism in Washington. U.S. negotiators must navigate a minefield of distrust across the U.S. government, amplified by the U.S. foreign policy community, regarding Pyongyang’s motives and intentions. After every negotiating round, they must make a persuasive case that progress is being made and therefore, harsher pressures, or walking away, are unnecessary. If they are unable to make such a case, U.S. attitudes and policies harden. Therefore, North Korea must provide specifics about the facilities it proposes to dismantle and its proposed sequencing with sanctions relief—and make a realistic request for lifting sanctions given that the United States has, according to Trump, confronted Kim with U.S. intelligence on covert sites.
A serious negotiating process begins at the working-level. Trump should elevate Special Representative Biegun to Presidential Envoy. That would incentivize the North to engage seriously and with adequate preparation at the working-level and strengthen Biegun’s management of the negotiations. It is riskier for U.S. agencies to undermine policy decisions if the working-level negotiator has a direct line to the President.
Delaying Resumption of Negotiations is Risky
At the moment, North Korea is under no obligation to refrain from expanding its WMD arsenal. The de facto trade-off between no North Korean nuclear and missile tests in exchange for scaled back U.S.-South Korean military exercises may also not hold. However, Trump has given Kim an unprecedented global platform from which to build ties to the international community. Kim is not likely to risk that opportunity with testing that would almost certainly garner international condemnation. At the same time, North Korea has threatened to reconsider negotiations and its testing moratorium. Kim is reminding Trump that his interests must be accommodated. But the longer both sides delay in establishing a serious negotiating process at the working-level, the more unpredictable and unstable the situation on the Korean Peninsula will become.
Ferial A. Saeed is a consultant at Telegraph Strategies LLC, focusing on analysis of political and economic trends and crises for business and government to mitigate risk. A former senior American diplomat with expertise on North Asia and the Middle East, she worked on North Korea policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, and has negotiated with the North Korean government.