Amid much anticipation and no small measure of skepticism, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week to further discussions of denuclearization of North Korea. With little concrete information released ahead of time, speculation swirled. Would the U.S. ease sanctions? Would North Korea agree to halt nuclear fuel production at Yongbyon? Would international inspectors be allowed in? Would the leaders sign a peace declaration, formally ending the Korean War?
In the end, the meetings closed with even less certainty than before. Negotiations wrapped early, with a signing ceremony abruptly canceled and no deal put on the table. “Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump said in a press conference, explaining that Kim pushed for sanctions lifted in their entirety — an impossible deal, he explained. (North Korea’s foreign minister later disputed that in a rare press conference, stating they wanted sanctions only partially lifted.) Nevertheless, Trump characterized the meetings as “very productive.” Others were less sure.
Below is a round-up of takeaways from the summit from the Asia Society. Updates from the discussion:
‘By Failing To Prepare, You Are Preparing To Fail’
Daniel Russel, vice president of international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an interview with Reuters the outcome was of little surprise, given the lack of planning.
The Hanoi Summit validates Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. The hard diplomatic work of narrowing differences and exploring options had simply not been done, so it is not surprising that the two leaders encountered insurmountable differences.
Kim Jong Un is not testing ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs at the moment, but he is testing Donald Trump. Kim may have wanted to see if Trump’s domestic legal and political woes made him desperate enough to take any deal he could get.
‘You Don’t Send the Boss Unless You Have the Deliverables in Hand’
Lindsey Ford, Director of Political-Security Affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute and Richard Holbrooke Fellow, said the apparent lack of preparation for the meeting and attendant fallout would make restarting staff-level negotiations extremely difficult.
I think it proves that there’s no substitute for preparation. It’s pretty apparent that both Kim and Trump were gambling that they would get a better deal in person than they thought they would get by having people do the staff work. But when you look at the text — at least what North Korea says was on the table and that folks walked away from — nothing is terribly surprising about what the proposal was. And that’s the thing negotiators ought to have been able to talk about and put on the table and suss out whether it was good enough months in advance so that you don’t waste your president’s capital by sending him halfway around the world during an emerging nuclear crisis elsewhere to come back with nothing. The 101 golden rule of government staff work is you don’t send the boss unless you have the deliverables in hand.
Trump clearly believed that at the end of the day his personal negotiating skills could eke out a better deal than what anybody else could get and he was willing to gamble on that. Now, I guess we have to give credit for the fact that he didn’t bite on something that his advisor said wasn’t worth it for the sake of having anything. Maybe that’s a low bar but we should give credit there because it could have been worse and we could have had worse outcomes from this summit. But at the same time it’s completely unclear at this point what Plan B there is and I think it’s going to be exponentially harder to now restart a staff level, working level negotiation process that should have been there from the get go after you walk away from the deal that was on the table.
It’s still unclear at this point exactly what was offered on both sides and it also unclear who precisely walked away first. At the end of the day it’s probably moot. But, both sides have an obvious interest to spin this in a way that makes them look like the more reasonable and aggrieved party. Both of these leaders have the potential to be embarrassed and have egg on their face over the way this went down. On Kim Jong Un’s part, it would look like he took a huge risk, made concessions to the Americans and walked away with nothing. And similarly on Trump’s part it will also look like he made this huge gamble that has not paid off in the slightest. They have to tell this story to the audience at home in both capitals in a way that puts them in the best light. To be clear, I’m not trying to say either side is lying, or that the president is lying. But we’re watching the post-debate spin right now.
‘I’m Not Sure How We’re Going To Move Forward’
Speaking from South Korea, political economist June Park, a lecturer of Global Affairs and Government at George Mason University Korea and an Asia 21 young leader, said a media frenzy had whipped up impossible expectations for a deal. With Trump’s antipathy toward re-starting U.S.-South Korean war exercises, concern is now mounting over their own bilateral relations.
From a South Korean perspective, too much attention on the summit led people to believe there would be a substantial outcome. It’s as if the media drove people to think there would be a result. We shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of a deal, but are surprised because expectations were so high. What realistically could have happened? I did see they exchanged a very friendly handshake before departure. At a very personal level, those two individuals have found some comfort in the similarity in their character.
Kim Jong Un came on strong by saying we need complete lifting of sanctions (according to Trump that’s what he said, we don’t know exactly unless we see a full verbatim record of what was said, but this is what we have so far). [EDITOR NOTE: North Korea has since said it was seeking only a partial lifting of sanctions.] This was also a game played by Kim Jong Un. He thought that at the current stage, if it is Donald Trump and not anyone else, he could actually win this. But given what was happening domestically — with the Cohen hearing and the briefings by Ambassador Robert Lighthizer on the U.S.-China trade talks — it didn’t really look like Mr. Trump would have his mind really set on this Vietnam summit.
But Trump did make it very clear that the military exercises with South Korea will not be continued. He didn’t say those literal sentences but he said it costs millions and millions of dollars.
In some ways this represents a deal — though one few could cheer and with dangerous implications for the region as a whole.
It makes me think — perhaps even if not signed on paper — what we have at this moment is if Kim Jong Un doesn’t test further, the U.S. and South Korea won’t have exercises either. So there is no provocation on either said. Maybe that’s the best balance we have as of yet. Until something happens and one side provokes the other.
From the North Korean perspective, they still have had those two summits, diplomatic encounters with the U.S. that never really happened previously. From the U.S. side this was a rapprochement, but it wouldn’t have happened had it not been from an individual like Mr. Trump. It wouldn’t have happened had it not been for his own character and his peculiar presidency. It was interesting to watch this but it was not going to give us a guideline forward.
What I’m more concerned about is how this kind of uncertainty will just lag on. And how U.S. engagement in the region will be severely weakened as time goes on. Complete denuclearization was never a goal that could be achieved. I’m not sure how we’re going to move forward.
Already the U.S.-South Korea alliance is not what it used to be, so that is my concern. There used to be a reason for retaining this alliance not just in terms of security but in terms of history and camaraderie, that bond that kept the two countries together. But clearly it’s just not there anymore. Being here I can sense that.
‘I Do Not Think This Is a Bad Result’
Asia 21 young leader Jieun Baek, a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford and author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society, said that the lack of a result represented a relatively positive outcome.
I expected the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit to be a continuation of the Singapore 2018 summit — spectacular summitry theater, vague commitments to denuclearization (a term and normative reality that both parties still do not agree on), and the creation of more false hope for a denuclearized North Korea resulting in a more peaceful world. While I was surprised to learn that the Hanoi summit prematurely ended without an agreement, I do not think this is a bad result. Given that several major issues have not been resolved, I believe that President Trump and his team were wise in walking away from a bad deal that would have potentially constituted the lifting of comprehensive sanctions before North Korea makes any substantive concessions regarding taking substantive steps towards denuclearization.
On the human rights front, Baek said that the continued omission of any mention of Pyongyang’s atrocities represents a failure of negotiations thus far.
The absence of public discussion about North Korea’s human rights situation between the two leaders since the Singapore Summit has been worrying. There must be widespread recognition that denuclearization and the improvement of human rights in North Korea are inextricably linked. Kim clearly wants to pursue economic development for his country. He must recognize that foreign companies and investors will continue to be barred from investing in North Korea given the countries’ egregious human rights violations. Secondly, if Kim is genuinely interested in a path towards verifiable denuclearization, he must provide access to international inspectors in the future. International inspectors cannot carry out the necessary inspections within the currently extremely closed, tightly controlled, and repressive climate.
Given the historically volatile U.S.-North Korea relationship, who knows what the short-term future has in store for the two leaders’ relationship and its effect on North Korea’s (supposed) pursuit of denuclearization. But what we do know is that the United States isn’t bound to a premature agreement that would have inevitably sparked another bout of false hope of a more peaceful world with a denuclearized North Korea.
‘Worst Possible Thing Trump Could Have Said for Human Rights’
Human rights lawyer Sylvia Kim co-founded Canada’s largest human rights organization for North Korean human rights. The Asia 21 young leader said she too has been struck by the absence of discussion on North Korea’s brutal rights record.
The concern for the human rights advocacy community is that human rights have been left off the agenda completely — whether it was this summit or the Singapore summit or the inter-Korean summits. Leaving human rights off the agenda brings legitimacy to this regime making it harder to bring accountability in the future for the human rights atrocities the regime is known to have carried out.
From a human rights perspective, Trump’s press conference after the summit was actually worse for human rights than if he hadn’t said anything at all. For those of us who have been documenting and monitoring human rights violations in North Korea, there is no doubt in any of our minds that the regime did not know what was happening in these gulag-like prison camps. What Trump said about Otto Warmbier, an American citizen whose family sued the regime, how he felt Kim Jong Un didn’t know what was going on in the prisons and that he takes Kim Jong Un at his word — was probably the worst possible thing he could have said for human rights.
From that perspective, I understand the frustration of many defectors. Most people want peace and know that military options will not lead to a happy outcome for anyone. At the same time, you don’t want to forget that we’re working with a brutal regime that oppresses its people and deprives them of so many of the rights and freedoms that are enshrined in universal norms and international conventions. For defectors and human rights advocates, it’s a hard balance of knowing we don’t want war but at the same time how far do you go with the antics of pageantry and theatrics to please this dictator.
When you see a superpower like the U.S. having these leader-to-leader talks and legitimizing diplomatic relations without any reference to human rights, it becomes easier for other countries to think that human rights is not a priority for the U.S.. The enforcement in human rights doesn’t often come from the actual enforcement of international laws and conventions; the power of human rights comes in the form of monitoring and ‘naming and shaming’ from the international community. Legitimizing Kim Jong Un, greeting and treating him like a rock star, buries the human rights issues and makes it easier for others to brush it aside.