HERE’S SOMETHING you don't expect to hear at a conference: “Send Lady Gaga to North Korea.” That was the most audacious idea emerging from a recent North Korea academic conference this past March at the University of Virginia. The presenter, in discussing his own research, explained that due to the failure of the recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, new ideas and connections—such as increasing cultural and people connections—could help offer fresh ways to build trust in a relationship that clearly has next to none.
If only selling records to little monsters was as easy as reconciling old enemies. In fact, such an idea, while certainly clever, makes one thing all the more obvious: Korea watchers the world over are out of ideas when it comes to crafting creative approaches to solving the conundrum that is the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
And creatives ideas—or any ideas—are needed now more than ever. The recent summit in Hanoi was perhaps the best example of a relationship that goes up and down more than waves in the ocean. Korea hands were shocked by the results—correction, the lack of any result—coming out of the meeting. And while no sane observer would have expected Washington and Pyongyang to embrace as brothers or friends after moving from outright hostility to summit meetings in less than a year, there was an emerging narrative that this historic event would produce some solid deliverables. In fact, one news outlet even published what looked like a credible peace plan being negotiated right before the meeting. And yet, the summit produced nothing more than what President Donald Trump referred to as the “walk,” or his reference to walking away from the negotiation table after hearing and declining North Korea’s denuclearization offer—a trade whereby the north gave up its Yongbyon nuclear facility for some measure of sanctions relief.
WHILE THERE are many logical and reasonable explanations as to what happened at the summit, there are none as of now that really add up. What makes events in Hanoi even stranger is that, leading up to the meeting, comments by U.S. North Korea Special Representative Steve Biegun helped create an atmosphere that offered hope that something truly historic was in the offing.
During a recent speech by Biegun at Stanford University just weeks before the summit, many experts assumed that the Trump administration was approaching the meeting with a more conciliatory approach. In fact, a number thought the administration might even be moving away from its silly policy of FFVD, or the final, fully verified, denuclearization of North Korea, along with the even more foolish implementation strategy, called “maximum pressure.”
Specifically, there were several lines from Biegun’s speech at Stanford that were praised by many pro-engagement Korea hands, giving us hope that change was just over the horizon:
For our part, we have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue—simultaneously and in parallel—all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer, along with planning for a bright future for the Korean people and the new opportunities that will open when sanctions are lifted and the Korean Peninsula is at peace, provided that North Korea likewise fulfills its commitment to final, fully verified denuclearization.
With comments like the above, many experts assumed that Team Trump was relaxing its approach towards North Korea—possibly even dumping FFVD once and for all. As Biegun stated during a question and answer session at Stanford later on in the session:
The President, Secretary of State, entire administration are devoted to the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. If we do not address the weapons of mass destruction issue on the Korean Peninsula today, we will have an Asia Pacific nuclear weapons challenge tomorrow, and we all need to keep that front of mind. We already see editorial opinion in regional newspapers calling for governments to begin to think about exactly this outcome. We have to address this, and we have to address it in absolute terms as well as in relative terms.
But in relative terms, we’re also not demanding that this be the starting point. As I said, in parallel we’re willing to look at a lot of other things that we can do together that also build the confidence and reduce the sense of risk or threat that would potentially drive a country to want to sustain that kind of capacity. It’s not necessary for North Korea to be a safe and stable country to have weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the one remaining issue that could potentially lead to conflict on the Korean Peninsula is the presence of weapons of mass destruction.
Biegun continues with words that gave many pro-engagement Korea advocates reason to cheer:
I don’t mince my words when I say that he is unconstrained by the assumptions of his predecessors. President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime. We need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization in a manner that sends that message clearly to North Korea as well. We are ready for a different future. It’s bigger than denuclearization, while it stands on the foundation of denuclearization, but that’s the opportunity we have and those are the discussions we will be having with the North Koreans.
ALL OF this was very encouraging to say the least, but how do we transform words into deeds? If peace was at hand, there would need to be a substantial agreement between Washington and Pyongyang to implement it. The best case scenario, and alluded to by Biegun, would be to take the Singapore Declaration, use it as a template, and add concrete substance to it. If that was done, and implemented successfully, U.S.-North Korea relations would be transformed.
Here is where things get very interesting—something like this was apparently attempted. In fact, one outlet, the website Vox, even reported on a deal that was sourced by three different people that seemed highly credible. This included, according to reporting from Alex Ward, some very specific clauses that would have truly made history:
First, a peace declaration to end the Korean War. Second, North Korea would agree to return more remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War. Third, the United States and North Korea would establish liaison offices. Fourth, North Korea would agree to the closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility or parts of the facility.
None of this should seem like a shock—it was being floated to many foreign policy insiders throughout Washington. In fact, this agreement was one I had also heard mentioned by several White House, Blue House and diplomatic sources who were well informed to know its contents. What adds credibility to such reports was the specificity with which all parties I spoke with discussed these details, and while nothing was agreed to and there were some small differences in their accounts, considering the degrees of separation among the parties, it seems unlikely such reports were inaccurate, made up, or simply false.
But none of this was meant to be—and we are still scratching our heads as to why. From here, there are additional details that came out after the summit that only make the result even stranger. Not only did the deal above fail to come together, but Trump cancelled what was to be a working lunch and what was called a “signing ceremony”—presumably for the deal that was outlined above. North Korean officials, seeing President Trump ready to leave the summit, suddenly upped their offer, or at least clarified it according to reporting from CNN:
The negotiations were coming to a close at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel when a North Korean official rushed over to the U.S. delegation. With Trump preparing to leave the hotel, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui hurriedly brought the U.S. delegation a message from Kim, two senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said. The message amounted to a last-ditch attempt by the North Koreans to reach a deal on some sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
U.S. and North Korean officials had been haggling over a shared definition of the sprawling, three-square-mile site and the last-minute overture sought to advance the North Koreans’ proposal for dismantling it. But the message did not make clear whether the North Koreans shared the U.S.’s expansive definition of the facility and U.S. officials asked for clarity.
Choe rushed back to get an answer. Kim replied that it included everything on the site. But even when Choe returned with that response, the U.S. delegation was unimpressed and didn’t want to resume the negotiations.
Why would Trump “walk”? What was his rationale? Could the press reports have been so far off the mark? There are only two possibilities for the potential failure in Hanoi, considering the reporting leading up to the summit that can’t account for this change of events and why Trump refused to negotiate an agreement when North Korea seems to have upped the ante. The first is that many experts simply engaged in wishful thinking and misread, misinterpreted or simply took their own hopes and placed them into Biegun’s Stanford remarks. Those reports were wrong, with the Trump administration never shifting position at all.