Substance trumps style in North Korean nuclear diplomacy
After much fanfare, well-publicized negotiation efforts and one of the strangest love stories in modern diplomacy, President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong --Un for a summit on North Korean denuclearization. While all parties present tried to avoid counting the result in negative terms, ; no new agreements were signed, and President Trump walked out after only half a day of deliberation. Speaking to the press afterwards, in what the two sides offered that had made it impossible to come to an agreement.
While we’ll likely never know the full extent of the discussion that took place behind closed doors, Trump stated that the only deal North Korea offered was an end to all sanctions in exchange for the closure of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the major nuclear facility that has produced the fissile material for North Korea’s atomic weapons. This alone would have been unacceptable for three reasons. First, it provided no safeguards for the several dozen nuclear weapons that North Korea already has. If Kim retained ownership of any of these, the inability to make new ones would have been irrelevant.
Second, it would have removed the sanctions that the United States has placed on North Korea for its human rights abuses, of which there are far too many to list here. Finally, there is actually no guarantee that closing Yongbyon would prevent North Korea from creating more bombs. In a press conference after the summit’s conclusion, the president hinted at American knowledge of a second, secret uranium enrichment site near Pyongyang which could take over for Yongbyon if it were shut down. Since Trump was obviously unwilling to accept this deal, and the North Koreans were unwilling to deviate from it, there was no point in trying to reach an agreement.
In hindsight, it’s hard to feel that this wasn’t a waste of time for everyone involved. If both sides came to the negotiating table without having at least a roadmap of where to go, what was the point of flying Trump out to Hanoi for three days? After all, it’s embarrassing to the rest of the world when high-profile negotiations fail, and it by American rivals such as Russia and China. More importantly, our taxpayer dollars financed this trip, and possibly more.
Lest we miss the point of this whole encounter, though, it’s important to remember that Trump is at least doing a few things well. The president has disrupted — rightly so, in my opinion — the longstanding policy of the United States never to engage North Korea in meetings between our heads of state. The idea has been that, by sharing a stage with a North Korean dictator, the United States would grant him legitimacy and good press coverage, neither of which a barbaric despot should have. It’s hard to debate the morality of this position, but when Barack Obama entered office, the North Koreans had a nuclear weapon that could reach Seoul, and when he left office, they had a nuclear weapon that could reach California. It might be disconcerting when summits fail, but they are the only way to denuclearization, and we should appreciate the fact that they are being held in the first place.It’s also important not to underestimate the value of developing personal charisma between leaders. As hard a pill as it is to swallow, Trump is likely invaluable in this regard; while previous presidents have scorned Kim for his human-rights record, Trump has heaped praise on him and repeatedly expressed a willingness to negotiate that others suspended. Whether Kim “loves” Trump or sees him as a sucker, a nuclear agreement is clearly much more likely under this administration than under previous ones. Since Kim alone has the power to shut down the North Korean nuclear program, engagement with him on a personal level is the best, if not the only, way forward.
Finally, it’s a credit to Trump that he had the conviction to walk away. No deal is better than a bad deal, and the vision the North Koreans tried to sell us in Hanoi was a bad deal.
The message to take away from all of this is clear. While vitally important, personal charisma between two leaders is no substitute for behind-the-scenes work by policy experts. The specifics of denuclearization are tremendously complicated; it’s silly to expect either Trump or Kim to understand them, and it’s even sillier to expect the two of them to agree to make a deal and then let the diplomats work out the specifics later. For any agreement to succeed, negotiations need to take place on the working level, and a summit like this should only happen if the two sides have already agreed on an exact text behind closed doors.
The failure in Hanoi was embarrassing and avoidable, but if this administration learns the right lessons from its shortcomings, it could result in a successful meeting that seeds an actual diplomatic agreement down the line. As in all things, the devil is in the details; groundwork must be laid beforehand to keep such an obvious difference in vision from happening again. Whether that will be the case before the next Trump-Kim meeting is anyone’s guess.