A much-touted two-day summit between Donald Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-Un failed to reach the finish line Thursday, as talks collapsed and Trump returned to Washington, DC. It’s unclear exactly what unraveled the process; Trump says Kim asked for the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for closing the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Complex, while North Korea reportedly says it asked for succour on some, but not all. But throwing around held accountable for Hanoi misses the level: The summit was a mistake to begin with.
That’s not to say the US and North Korea shouldn’t pursue negotiations over the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear disposition. They perfectly should, and are expected to continue to, per Trump’s departing statements. “Chairman Kim and myself, we want to do the right deal, ” Trump said. “Speed is not important.” But within that otherwise upbeat rating lies the main hindrance to real progress in the Korean Peninsula: Trump and Kim should not be the ones doing the bargain, at the least not the bulk of it. Hanoi is what happens when they try.
Trump has built his brand as a master negotiator, despite uneven results in the political realm. And in fairness, his gambit to meet with Kim in Singapore last summer ensued at the very least in what international relations wonks call confidence-building measures. Importantly, North Korea hasn’t experimented a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon in over a year. And its relationship with South Korea, while continuing to tense, has moderately thawed.
“These are positive steps, and they show that the North Koreans are at least willing to have trade negotiations and is participating in diplomacy with South Korea and the United States, ” says James McKeon, a policy psychoanalyst at the Center for Arms control and Non-Proliferation, a DC-based nonprofit.
But in the months since Singapore, North Korea has offered little to no evidence of abridging its weapons programs. And why would they? Despite Trump’s declaration last June that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea, ” the Singapore accord confirmed only that “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization.” They’ll get to it, eventually, at some level, or at the very least make it some serious thought.
Chalk the vague expression, and the resulting absence of verifiable progress, up to Trump’s untraditional diplomacy. “When we firstly were looking at this going into the Singapore summit, we were saying that it was ass-backwards. This is not the lane you’re supposed to do it, ” said former diplomat Robert Gallucci in a call with reporters. “You don’t start with the summit. You finish with the summit, and you make sure all the prep work is done, and then the two big-hearted guys presumably come together and sign something.”
Gallucci would know; as manager US negotiator, he helped procure the 1994 Framework agreements, which tamped down North Korea’s nuclear ambitions for nearly a decade. And while he acknowledges that strains between Kim and Trump may have escalated to such a dangerous phase last-place summer–thanks in no small-minded place to Trump’s own rhetoric–that a shotgun peak in Singapore was needed, he and others argue that it’s not a viable process for substantive change.
“President Trump’s unorthodox approach to diplomacy has created an opening, starting back in Singapore and continuing to Hanoi, ” says Lynn Rusten, who provided as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the Obama administration and currently works on nuclear issues at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “But the only route that they can capitalize on that and deliver it to fruition is to revert now to the more traditional negotiating process.”
Hanoi was anything but. Trump appointed the widely respected Stephen Biegun as special emissary to North Korea six months ago, but Biegun has recently been able to conduct a single round of working-level talks with his North Korean equivalents. And even that came simply in the last three weeks, after Trump declared when the summit would take place during his State of the Union address.
Nuclear diplomacy is not American Ninja Warrior . You don’t get bonus levels for navigating obstacles faster. “It’s totally unrealistic to think that you can just go in with very few preparation and reach an agreement on something that is so complex, ” says Rusten, particularly in view of how enmeshed the nuclear issues are with a broader set of regional economic and security concerns. “There’s got to be an incremental, step by step approach.”
That should be especially evident made North Korea’s long history of failing to keep its nuclear promises. As much as Trump has touted denuclearization as the endgame, arms control experts widely agree that there’s likely no way to get there overnight, or in a single sit-down. What it will take is weeks or months or more of people on the ground hammering out fine details , not a single two-hour gather between two heads. Specially when at the least one of them likely has interesting thing on his psyche.
And while Thursday’s failure ought to be worse–Trump could have, say, promised to withdraw all US troops from South Korea, or Kim could have threatened to resume missile testing–it obtains a real cost. By trying for a grand agreement, Trump and Kim missed the opportunity to establish clear, specific goals that their squads could work then work towards.
“It’s somewhat surprising that they would play-act such high-stakes poker at such a high-profile event, ” says Jenny Town, psychoanalyst at North koreans watchdog 38 North. “It’s really hard to see how we might maintain momentum going forward.”
Maintaining the status quo is better to more nuclear tests, but it’s not a viable long-term solution. “While it’s good that strains are down, North Korea is continuing to churn out fissile substance and produce weapons, ” says Rusten. “The facts on the ground continue to change in a negative direction.”
It’s admirable that Trump has constructed neutralizing security threats from North Korea a identified priority. The relative mollify of the last eight months shouldn’t be dismissed. But if the White House wants to make actual progress, it is essential put in the employment before the next high-profile meet. That’s one concession Trump, still further, seems reluctant to make.