by Dr. Victor Cha
American Ambassadors Review, Spring 2019
After Hanoi: Where do Trump and Kim Go from Here? 
There were high expectations at the second meeting of American and North Korean leaders in Vietnam last month after the absence of progress on denuclearization commitments made at the first summit in Singapore last summer. Yet at Hanoi, not only were the two leaders unable to deliver an agreement with tangible steps on denuclearization, but they also dispensed with the joint statement signing, cancelled the ceremonial lunch and skipped the joint press conference. In a solo presser, President Donald Trump said that sometimes you “have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”
The President indeed may have avoided getting entrapped into a bad deal at Hanoi. What North Korea put on the table in terms of the Yongbyon nuclear complex addresses a fraction of its growing nuclear program that does not even break the surface of its underlying arsenal and stockpiles of fissile materials, not to mention missile bases and delivery systems. And what North Korea sought in return, in terms of major sanctions relief on five UN Security Council resolutions that target 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, would have removed one of the primary sources of leverage, albeit imperfect, on the regime. In this instance, no deal was better than a bad deal for the United States.
Nevertheless, the Hanoi summit has left the United States with no clear diplomatic road ahead on this challenging security problem, a trail of puzzled allies in Asia and the promise of no more made-for-television summit meetings for the foreseeable future. The question remains, where do we go from here?
When leaders’ summits fail to reach agreement, diplomacy by definition has reached the end of its rope. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put on the best face they could in Hanoi, talking about closer understanding and continued good relations between the two sides as a result of the meetings, but the failed summit leaves a great deal of uncertainty going forward. South Koreans will frantically seek meetings with Washington and Pyongyang to pick up the pieces. The North Koreans already have sent an envoy to China to chart next steps.
While I do not think this will mean a return to the “Fire and Fury” days of 2017 when armed conflict was possible, we have learned numerous lessons from Hanoi for going forward.
First, the North Korean position at Hanoi reflects little change in the North Koreans’ negotiation strategy despite holding the audience of the U.S. President. This was perhaps the most disappointing outcome of the summit for me, as a long-timer observer and participant in past nuclear negotiations. President Trump essentially tested the critical thesis that had hung over previous negotiations for decades. That is, the North Koreans will not truly show their hand and take big steps unless we talk directly to their leadership. Critics of the Six Party talks made that observation countless times to us when we were negotiating. Yet what we found in Hanoi was that North Korea stuck stubbornly to its same negotiating strategy, which is to negotiate its “past” when it comes to its nuclear weapons programs, but not its “present” or its “future.” What this means is that Pyongyang is only willing to put on the table elements of its program that it no longer really needs—such as an old nuclear test site or the old plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, while preserving its “present”—including its nuclear weapons arsenal, fissile material, missile bases and uranium program—and its “future,” which encompasses promises on future production bans. In exchange, however, North Korea wants real concessions from its negotiating counterpart, such as sanctions relief.
Second, I believe that both sides walked away from the Hanoi summit with the core belief that “pressure works.” In the case of the United States, the fact that the North Korean leader prioritized sanctions relief above all other U.S. concessions taught us that the sanctions are indeed working. There were many other things that could have been asked for—including the exchange of liaison offices and even a peace declaration ending the Korean War—but the North Korean leadership made clear that only one thing mattered, which just reinforced that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is having an impact. For some in the administration, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, this means the pressure should continue and even increase, not abate.
Similarly, the fact that the North Koreans came to Hanoi with a bad deal in hand intimates a belief that President Trump was under pressure to take less than half-a-loaf. Apparently, in working-level talks in the run-up to the summit, U.S. negotiators made clear that the offer of Yongbyon for sanctions relief was not nearly workable, yet North Korea showed up in Hanoi with the same position (and with no fallback position). Furthermore, revelations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and other think tanks that have documented North Korean activity at the Sohae satellite launch facility to return the site to normal operating status after initial dismantlement earlier in the summer of 2018 again suggest that North Korea believes more pressure is necessary to soften up the U.S. position. This does not suggest that a rocket launch or nuclear test is imminent, but it does suggest that the situation could take a downward turn before there is a resumption of diplomacy.
Third, the United States should be prepared for other regional parties to start lobbying us to change our position. This is what I once referred to as the dilemma of American reasonableness. Whenever we reach an impasse with North Korea in diplomacy, third parties know that it is impossible to move the intransigent North Koreans; therefore, they invariably come to the United States to find a solution. Coming out of Hanoi, both the Chinese and South Koreans acknowledge openly that Pyongyang missed a golden opportunity. After numerous visits to the White House by Kim’s envoys, trips by Pompeo to Pyongyang and two summit meetings with the U.S. President (a meeting North Koreans have sought for 60 years), North Korea was given the chance to make historic progress. Yet the best the regime could manufacture was a minimalist position that one would have expected to hear as an opening gambit at the working level rather than in the key negotiation between the two top leaders. Yet as unreasonable as North Korea is, those who want to continue to see diplomatic progress, such as the South Koreans and the Chinese, will invariably come to the United States, complain about North Korea’s behavior, empathize with our frustration and then ask Washington to be more flexible.
Fourth, we should expect North Korea to retrench in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit. The outcome constituted a major embarrassment for the North Korean leader, and it would not surprise me if there were some personnel changes as a result of the failed summit. The question is, when it re-emerges, whether Pyongyang will be cycling back to a provocation track or focused on finding a diplomatic way forward. In a bizarre Tweet on March 22 this year, President Trump appeared to unilaterally pull back additional Treasury Department sanctions against the North Korean regime in a bid not to upset the diplomatic momentum; however, data research at CSIS shows that when bilateral negotiations have broken down between the United States and North Korea over the past three decades, the likelihood has increased for a North Korean provocation within five months.
Fifth, human rights continue to be neglected in the Trump administration’s summit diplomacy with North Korea. The only relevant statement in this regard was the President’s defense of the North Korean leader’s professed ignorance of the murder of American college student Otto Warmbier. The President had an opportunity to ask for a full accounting of what happened to Warmbier as well as a statement of regret. It is impossible for U.S. denuclearization diplomacy to succeed without integration of the human rights issue. Because of the sanctions levied by this body, there is no company or international financial institution that will enter North Korea given human rights violations in the supply chain. Thus, the President’s promises of casinos and condos on the beaches of North Korea in return for denuclearization ring hollow without his beginning a real dialogue on human rights.
Finally, we are left with the question of who benefits from a pause in the diplomacy. We may believe that time is on our side because of the continued bite of the sanctions, but North Korea may believe that its continued production of weapons, materials and missile designs puts added pressure on the United States. In either case, President Trump may be realizing the limits of his “bromance” diplomacy with North Korea. If he loses interest, then we are unlikely to see any progress for the remainder of his term in office, which will make Americans less, not more secure.
Dr. Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the D.S. Song-KF Professorship in Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University. He served the White House from 2004 to 2007 as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.
1 This first appeared as submitted testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on “U.S. Policy Toward North Korea After the Second Summit” on March 26, 2019, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/us-policy-toward-north-korea-after-the-second-summit/.
2 “Remarks by President Trump in Press Conference, Hanoi, Vietnam,” The White House, February 28, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-press-conference-hanoi-vietnam/.
3 Joseph Bermudez, “After Hanoi Summit: Rebuilding of Sohae Launch Facility,” CSIS Beyond Parallel, March 5, 2019, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/hanoi-summit-rebuilding-sohae-launch-facility/; “North Korea’s Tongchang-ri: Rebuilding Commences on Launch Pad and Engine Test Stand,” 38 North, March 5, 2019, https://www.38north.org/2019/03/sohae030519/.
4 Victor Cha, “Delisting North Korea,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/11/AR2008101101588.html/.
5 Lisa Collins, “25 Years of Negotiations and Provocations: North Korea and the United States,” CSIS Beyond Parallel, October 2, 2017, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/25-years-of-negotiations-provocations/.