President Donald Trump’s summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, last week was a monumental failure for the entire world to see. Trump was unprepared, too self-assured about his negotiating abilities with a tyrant, and far too starstruck by Kim Jong-un, a man who lords over a regime whose network of concentration camps makes the Soviet Union’s gulag system look tame in comparison. “[I]t now ought to be clear that the president’s shallow and slapdash attempts at dealmaking are not going to succeed,” said a Washington Post editorial the day after the talks.
So goes the conventional wisdom in Washington, DC. There is a feeling of confusion about what comes next. North Korea hawks and some Korea experts are all but celebrating the summit’s “failure” as confirmation that their pessimism was right all along. Victor Cha, the Asia director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council who is now the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, somberly wrote that diplomacy may be at the “end of its rope.”
True, none of us know where the diplomacy goes from here. The reality of Trump and Kim flying back to their respective capitals with nothing to show for it—not even another non-binding and vague joint communique like the statement both signed in Singapore nine months ago—leads many analysts to describe the process as floundering and ineffective. Those of us on the outside looking in can’t even be sure why the summit last week adjourned without the press conference and signing ceremony that were included in the official schedule. U.S. and North Korean officials have completely different interpretations about what the other was offering and demanding; North Korean officials reject Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that Pyongyang put forth unreasonable asks, such as a total lifting of UN Security Council sanctions.
What we can be reasonably assured of is the diplomatic process will continue. Washington and Pyongyang both have an interest in keeping talks alive, if for no other reason to avoid a return of the rhetorical bombs launched between Trump and Kim in 2017. Secretary Pompeo wasted no time expressing his desire to meet with the North Koreans again at the working-level. The official narrative in North Korean state media is quite conciliatory, going to extreme lengths to thank Trump for making the journey to Hanoi and promising to continue the dialogue. Both countries continue to do what they can to preserve diplomacy. For the North Koreans, this means maintaining the nuclear and missile testing moratorium. For the Americans, unilateral confidence-building steps translate into continuing the suspension of major U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
Fortunately, despite the snag in Hanoi, we are unlikely to witness diplomacy crumbling like a ton of bricks. Although the bottom-line positions between Washington and Pyongyang are as irreconcilable as they’ve always been, Trump and Kim are personally invested in the process. A total severing of diplomatic contact would be a failure on the part of both.
Trump, Pompeo, and Stephen Biegun will huddle over the next few weeks to determine what, if anything, the administration can do to rejuvenate negotiations. The problem, of course, is that Washington’s fixation on short-term denuclearization measures will always bump up against the Kim regime’s total resistance to the idea. The United States could draft the best negotiators in the world to represent them during talks with the North Koreans and the effort would still run into a cement wall. Unless Kim Jong-un is certain that he doesn’t require a nuclear weapons deterrent to survive in a cruel and cut-throat world, all attempts by the United States to butter him up with cash, diplomatic recognition, and security guarantees won’t be enough. In the current dynamics, Washington could give Kim the moon, the stars, and ownership of Trump’s Virginia golf club and it wouldn’t be enticing enough for the North Korean leader to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.
Advisers like John Bolton will keep whispering in Trump’s ear that anything short of North Korea’s immediate denuclearization and de-missilization is unacceptable. Others, like Biegun, will try to persuade the president to allow him the room to guide the process towards a successful conclusion. The optimal question, however, is whether a successful conclusion is even attainable at a time when the Kim regime could possess as many as sixty nuclear weapons.
Denuclearization has been the focal point of Washington’s policy on North Korea for the last quarter-century. And yet every single year during that period of time, the North’s nuclear leverage has only increased as more spent-fuel is reprocessed, more centrifuges are installed, and more facilities are expanded. The United States is still tackling the North Korea issue as if it was 1994 and Pyongyang has yet to conduct a single underground nuclear test.
Can the denuclearization ideal be accomplished at this late stage in the game? The optimists among us would say absolutely—with the right amount of determination, patience, and sequencing, the world could wake up one morning and learn that Kim Jong-un has done the impossible. The skeptics would view all of this as a fairytale, a story which sounds good but is only probable in an alternative universe. Many of us in the middle go back-and-forth depending on the events of the day, as if we are on a never-ending emotional roller-coaster.
If we have any chance at all in denuclearizing the North Koreans, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits need to undergo an honest assessment of the situation as it now stands. And if we are being honest with ourselves, denuclearization is a goal that will only be met far down the road—assuming it can be met at all.
The Trump administration is right to keep the dialogue going. But the president shouldn’t fool himself: even if you are confident in your abilities as a negotiator, don’t expect too much. Establishing a durable relationship with Kim, encouraging constant contact between U.S. and North Korean officials, and allowing his South Korean partner in President Moon Jae-in to carry on with his inter-Korean peace initiative is the appropriate course of action. Just because North Korea is a de-facto nuclear weapons power doesn’t mean an improved U.S.-North Korean relationship and a peace and stability regime on the Korean Peninsula should be held back arbitrarily.