The good, the bad, and the ugly at the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC16A5993080

After the motorcades rolled unimpeded along normally bustling streets of Hanoi, the flag-waving onlookers, a decadent meal of shrimp cocktail and steak, weeks of media build-up, and expressions of mutual respect and admiration between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi ended up with…the status quo.

The summit meeting between Kim and Trump ended early. And there was no joint statement, as widely anticipated. Thousands of bewildered journalists who had camped out to capture the spectacle packed up and left, and Kim’s motorcade left quickly, as members of his entourage scrambled to jump into moving cars. The media has been ablaze with speculations about what happened, as pundits weigh in with declarations that the summit was a failure or a success. It was neither. And it was both.

Kim was offering a bad deal and the president was right to reject it.

First, the good. Kim was offering a bad deal and the president was right to reject it. According to the North Korean foreign minister who held a rare press conference the day after, Pyongyang offered the permanent dismantlement of a portion of nuclear material production facilities at Yongbyon Nuclear Research facility in exchange for a “partial lifting” of sanctions, namely the 2016 and 2017 sanctions on the North’s export industries that also limited petroleum imports. The removal of these sanctions would have amounted to billions of dollars in sanctions relief, revenue that could be funneled back into the proscribed programs that we are trying to stop. Given the metastasis of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the covert facilities, and the range of ballistic missiles, offering Yongbyon for the removal of these most effective sanctions, on its face, was a grossly disproportionate trade.

But President Trump appeared ready to offer a peace declaration that would mark at least a symbolic end of the Korean conflict from 1950-53 that ended with an armistice. He also said to Kim that he thought that an exchange of liaison offices in each other’s capitals was a good idea; North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations. In the lead-up to the summit, the president and his senior officials sent out strong signals that an end-of-war declaration was on the table, probably to show that the United States was willing to satisfy the first two pillars of the Singapore declaration and to dispel any charges that Washington is resistant to offering “security guarantees” to Pyongyang. More cynically, it was probably also intended to allow Trump to make a dramatic declaration to the end of a nearly seven-decade war, to bake in “success” in the Hanoi meeting, and potentially strengthen the president’s eligibility for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Proposing a peace declaration and liaison offices was a smart move because President Moon Jae-in of South Korea had been advocating for a declaration since he came into office in May 2017. It showed that we were with our ally and taking Seoul’s desires and advice seriously. It was also potentially good for U.S.-China relations because it demonstrated to Beijing that Washington was serious about regional stability, China’s chief concern.

Kim’s apparent coolness toward a peace declaration and proposal for liaison offices laid bare that he is not serious about “peace,” and that sanctions removal was more important than moving toward normal ties with the United States. Kim miscalculated, assessing that he could stymie working-level talks on the more sensitive issues of denuclearization and gamble that he had a more malleable partner in President Trump. The president’s reported insistence on getting more from Kim on the nuclear issue before he would lift sanctions and articulating that directly to Kim showed him that Trump and his national security team were on the same page.

Now for the bad.

We should not have had a second summit at all, given the gaping hole between U.S. and North Korean expectations. Both leaders, suffering from hubris and overconfidence that the sheer force of their charisma and their budding friendship could get themselves a good deal, even though they almost certainly were briefed by their working-level negotiators about the limited parameters of what the other side was asking and willing to give. The Hanoi fizzle highlighted the weakness of the top-down model that was worth trying, but bumbled as the working-level processes were undermined by the enthusiasm for a vanity summit. The opportunity to use the summit as leverage to spur movement on denuclearization by North Korea was lost as a result.

Second, a number of factors caused much consternation and embarrassment, especially for President Moon who had eagerly anticipated progress and a green light to pursue his policy of economic engagement with North Korea. In particular, these were the hastiness of summit preparations and its abrupt end, the confusion about desired outcomes, and concerns about what concessions the president might offer that could undermine U.S. and our allies’ interests.

To top it off, President Trump in his post-summit press conference couldn’t resist lobbing another critique of “expensive” military exercises with South Korea and alliances in general. “I said [to the generals]: Look, you know exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games…But it’s a very, very expensive thing,” the president said, adding: “We’re spending a tremendous amount of money on many countries, protecting countries that are very rich can certainly afford to pay us and then some.”

Third, the president defended North Korea’s documented practice of gross human rights violations. When asked about Otto Warmbier, the college student who was detained and tortured by North Korea and returned to the United States in 2017 in a coma and died shortly thereafter, Trump said: “[Kim] tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” and that Kim “felt badly about it.” Trump was almost certainly trying to preserve his positive relationship with Kim and maintain the momentum of diplomacy. But Kim is likely to perceive such a full-throated defense as another data point that the president is willing to look the other way on Kim’s bad behavior. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to improve and expand its missile bases and produce fissile material for more nuclear weapons, not to mention selling arms in conflict-ridden areas of the Middle East and Africa and engaging in cyberattacks to evade sanctions.

The failure of the summit to even get minor concessions is to Kim’s advantage.

Finally, the ugly. The failure of the summit to even get minor concessions is to Kim’s advantage, as he can use the time to improve his nuclear weapons capabilities, do more summits with regional and international leaders to try to erode the sanctions regime, and further cement his claimed status as a responsible nuclear weapons power.

We’re unlikely to plunge into another bout of tension of 2017, as Kim seems focused on maintaining his relationship with Trump. But we should be worried about how he could be emboldened to take provocative actions to test the hypothesis that he won’t suffer any consequences. Even if Trump does return to the military strike option, we face the increased risk of miscalculation that spirals into an unintended clash if Kim misreads a potential next confrontation as a paper tiger, like the “fire and fury” of 2017 turned out to be. Moreover, Kim’s perception of Trump’s relative weakness, given the president’s domestic problems, is likely to fuel Kim’s confidence and relative strength vis-à-vis the embattled president.

In the coming days and weeks, and as we potentially move toward another summit between Kim and Trump, it is imperative that Washington try to exploit the good, avoid the bad through principled stances and alliance management, and craft a diplomatic strategy and disciplined planning to head off the ugly.