Why the Hanoi Summit Failed

The Hanoi Summit between North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump did not advance the national security of any of the countries in East Asia, the United States, or the world. The puzzle is why two leaders would travel so far and leave emptyhanded.

One theory is that there was insufficient time to get ready for the summit. But the State Department’s special representative, Stephen Biegun, undertook elaborate preparations to develop a step-by-step approach. An agreement was prepared for signature that apparently would have allowed American inspectors to oversee and verify the dismantling of the Yongbyon plutonium facility that originally launched North Korea’s nuclear program. A joint declaration to end the Korean War would repair the failure of both countries to sign the 1953 Armistice. Kim Jong UN was evidently prepared to put in writing his commitment to permanently end missile and nuclear testing. A reporter’s question revealed that both sides were open to the idea of exchanging liaison offices in their respective capitals.

A second theory is that extreme caution prevailed in the American delegation because many East Coast experts issued warnings that an unpredictable Trump might agree to something without contemplating the consequences. Some even feared that he would agree to withdraw American military forces from South Korea. The Director of National Intelligence predicted that Kim Jong UN would never abandon nuclear weapons so that he could retain control in North Korea. Trump had suggested that he would relax some pressure on North Korea before full denuclearization, contrary to views within various quarters in Washington. But there was no presentation of a “road map” concerning which denuclearization steps would be timed to coincide with which sanctions were to be removed.

Trump articulated a third explanation – that North Korea asked for a complete cancellation of all economic sanctions, which have accumulated in several rounds since 1992. However, the chief Pyongyang negotiator quickly denied making any such demand, instead pointing out that limited sanctions relief was sought only to satisfy the basic needs of the people – in particular, only sanctions imposed since March 2016 involving coal exports, metals, raw materials, refined petroleum imports, raw petroleum imports, and seafood. In return, Pyongyang was prepared to demolish the Yongbyon facility and other sites with supervision by American inspectors.

During the Hanoi Summit, extraordinary testimony by Trump’s former personal attorney took place in Congress, upstaging his meeting with Kim Jong UN Trump may have been so despondent that he lost enthusiasm for making a monumental deal.

The most probable reason for lack of progress was that the United States made new demands at Hanoi. Although North Korea’s proposal for limited if robust sanctions relief had been discussed weeks prior to the meeting, American negotiators in Hanoi suddenly asked for destruction of a second nuclear enrichment facility that Pyongyang had not previously acknowledged. Even though North Korea apparently agreed to that demand, another unanticipated request was not only for full disclosure of all nuclear and missile sites but also for a full accounting of all biological and chemical weapons. In other words, the American negotiators moved the goalposts regarding the focus of the potential agreement, startling their North Korea counterparts, who then countered that such a step might require removal of all sanctions. Upping the ante on one side was mirrored by the other side, giving Trump an excuse to walk away.

According to North Korea’s vice foreign minister, the unanticipated American demands hit a nerve in Kim. They report that he lost interest in dealmaking, evidently believing that negotiators acted in bad faith by deliberately torpedoing progress at the summit. If Kim expected that Trump would prevail over obstacles erected by lower-level personnel on his team, he was mistaken.

Many will blame one side or the other for wrecking the momentum toward the goal of eventual denuclearization, which has been estimated to take ten years for completion. Bargaining between military rivals almost never goes smoothly. The remaining impasse is that North Korea’s position on leaving Hanoi was that their initial offer would remain as before, while Trump refused to accept a “bad deal,” hoping that Pyongyang will reduce its demands or increase its concessions in due course.

Although Trump has been congratulated for making no deal rather than a bad deal, the fact is that the situation is now dangerously uncertain. A small deal, vaguely but not definitively addressing denuclearization steps and sanctions relief, would have been preferable to assure future progress. At a minimum, they could have agreed to an end-of-war declaration, which was the only widely anticipated outcome in the first place.

Observers are left with the impression that Pyongyang and Washington negotiators might have fine-tuned the lifting of sanctions to reach an agreement. North Korea wanted 5 of 11 rounds relaxed, so they might have agreed on 3 or 4 instead. But negotiators lacked the time and will to do so, so a standoff occurred.

A probable explanation for the hardened American position is the fact that John Bolton, who distrusts paper agreements, was unexpectedly part of the American delegation in Hanoi and sat alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the negotiating table. Bolton presented the additional demands, possibly because of all the warnings from East Coast experts about Trump’s unpredictability. Meanwhile, Stephen Biegun sat in a row behind Bolton and Pompeo, indicating that his meticulous preparations for an agreement awaiting signatures were being sidelined.

The failure of the Hanoi Summit is not the first time that the United States has had problems in negotiating with North Korea. Denuclearization was proceeding systematically in accordance with the Agreed Framework of 1994, as negotiated during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Then came the Axis of Evil Speech of 2002 and disavowal of that 1994 agreement by the administration of George W. Bush. As a result, North Korea felt betrayed and proceeded apace to develop considerable missile and nuclear capability. John Bolton has been identified as the author of one or both negative moves.

Although both Kim and Trump lost face, the major loser at Hanoi was Seoul. President Moon Jae In wanted to see a relaxation of sanctions so that he could encourage South Korean businesses to operate in the North, promoting prosperity within both halves of the Korean peninsula, something of considerable significance for the people of North Korea, where there is an expected shortfall of 1.4 million tons of food during 2019. Both Koreas had already issued peace declarations and undertaken demilitarization measures around their joint border. They were awaiting the United States to join the de-escalation, the first step toward development of a comprehensive peace treaty that would finally end the last vestige of the Cold War. Now President Moon will have the mediatory task of pursuing the compromise that could have made the Hanoi Summit a success.

Russia is a possible beneficiary of the uncertainty: Moscow has offered to assist in the dismantling of the nuclear and plutonium sites in North Korea while bringing fuel to make up for the resulting loss in energy capabilities at nuclear power plants. China will now have reason to relax sanctions, as North Korea appears to have negotiated in good faith. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has indicated that he will meet Kim Jong UN to resolve issues between the two countries, will hear about what really happened in Hanoi.

Nevertheless, President Trump does not want total failure, and he praised Kim in remarks before he left town. He will try to keep hope alive so that peacemaking will be his most important legacy. How he can do so and retain a war hawk as National Security Adviser remains to be seen.

Michael Haas, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai`i, author of United States Diplomacy with North Korea and Vietnam with a Foreword by former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson.