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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
The second U.S.-DPRK summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27 and 28 ended early and without a joint declaration or the signing of an agreement between the two sides.
The impasse seemed, according to both sides, centered around sanctions relief for the DPRK. While U.S. President Donald Trump said that they could not agree to North Korean demands that sanctions be removed in their entirety, a subsequent press conference from Ri Yong Ho, the North Korean foreign minister, addressed this further.
According to Ri, the North Koreans wanted sanctions relief focusing on the previous five UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions imposed during 2016 and 2017 and offered the verified dismantlement of parts of Yongbyon in return.
Trump had mentioned that the U.S. required movement on other areas outside of Yongbyon as well, but that North Korea was not willing to do so.
As the dust settles on what was a highly anticipated but anti-climactic event, NK News spoke to four experts to gather views on the second summit as well as prospects and prescriptions for what appears to be a more uncertain path moving forward.
The following North Korea watchers responded in time for our deadline:
Kelsey Davenport: The Hanoi outcome is a setback to U.S-North Korean negotiations, but not a complete surprise nor a death blow to diplomacy. Going into the summit there were clearly gaps between the U.S. and North Korean positions on a deal trading dismantlement of Yongbyon for sanctions relief and not enough time to resolve them. But it’s unclear if Trump and Kim failed to bridge the divide or if either leader attempted to change the parameters at the last minute.
Regardless of the reason, failure to reach agreement on next steps at Hanoi underscores the importance of transitioning talks from the head-of-state level to a working-group led process that empowers the negotiating teams to pick up where Trump and Kim left off and reach agreement on next steps. Diplomacy stalled after Singapore in part because Trump and Kim failed to establish an effective process to advance the agreed upon goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding. Hopefully, Trump and Kim did not make that same mistake in Hanoi.
Danny Russel: I am pleasantly surprised that Trump walked away from a dangerously lopsided deal that would have traded sanctions relief for one nuclear site, Yongbyon. The lack of progress is best explained by Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” There was no foundation laid for the summit through diplomatic negotiations.
Hoo Chiew Ping: It is not surprising and should be expected as hopes were high to reach a substantive deal, so when both sides couldn’t commit to the big steps, shortfall like this is normal.
Stephan Haggard: I certainly did not predict a no-deal outcome, but at the same time it is not altogether surprising either. Typically the outcome of summits is pre-cooked; 95% of the work has already been done by the Sherpas.
In this case, however, the North Koreans have been signaling that they prefer to negotiate with the president and have been slow-walking both high-level and technical talks. It is possible that when the history is written, it was the North Koreans who erred, believing they could extract more concessions from Trump than he and his team was willing to give.
Kelsey Davenport: The prospects for the U.S. maximum pressure campaign diminished when Trump irresponsibly declared post-Singapore that North Korea no longer constituted a nuclear threat. If North Korea continues to refrain from overt provocations, such as nuclear and missile testing, and Trump continues to lavish praise on Kim Jong Un, sanctions enforcement is likely to continue slipping.
This is why it’s critical for the Trump administration to act with urgency. Trump may claim that he is in no rush to reach a deal, but a drawn-out process plays in Pyongyang’s favor. The United States loses leverage over time as sanctions enforcement weakens and North Korea rebuilds diplomatic relationships. North Korea sanctions also do not exist in a vacuum. States are increasingly frustrated with what is perceived as U.S. overreach on sanctions, particularly in light of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on that country, despite Tehran’s compliance. This sentiment that U.S. sanctions are infringing on sovereignty contributes to poor enforcement of North Korea measures.
The sanctions remain on the books and undoubtedly annoy Kim Jong Un, but sanctions enforcement has sagged and North Korean workarounds have proliferated as its international isolation erodes. Kim has won considerable breathing space, and can be confident that key countries like China, Russia, Vietnam and South Korea are unlikely to resume vigorous sanctions enforcement.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The U.S. team was willing to offer partial sanctions exemptions for North Korea this time in response to North Korea side’s consistent call for it since the Singapore Summit.
I believe Trump is going to keep the concession up for offer as part of the deal, and he’s willing to see exemptions that would enable North Korea to go forward with inter-Korean economic cooperation and potentially aid for development by other countries.
Stephan Haggard: As the President said clearly, the sanctions will technically remain in place. The big question, however, is whether the sanctions regime will erode in fact.
I suspect Beijing will keep at least a modicum of pressure on North Korea, enforcing the sanctions to some extent while extending adequate credit to assure that the country does not go under. The loser is South Korea: it will now be hard to move inter-Korean projects forward as it would be seen as outright defection from the Hanoi assessment that progress was inadequate.
Kelsey Davenport: Sites outside of Yongbyon will need to be addressed as part of the denuclearization process and the Trump administration should have a roadmap in mind for how and when to address them. However, it’s unrealistic to expect North Korea to put covert sites on the table in the first phase of negotiations, prior to building confidence that the United States is serious about addressing Pyongyang’s security and economic concerns in return.
It’s also logical to begin with Yongbyon. Yongbyon is a critical part of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and verifiable dismantlement of this site would inhibit Pyongyang’s ability to expand its fissile material stockpile. Yongbyon is also a known quantity where inspectors have been present in the past, so it’s an easier–but still meaningful–step toward verifiable denuclearization that also tests North Korea’s intentions to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Danny Russel: A meaningful denuclearization deal will need to be comprehensive, although implementation will undoubtedly be incremental. A piecemeal deal in which North Korea picks and chooses facilities to be disclosed and dismantled is doomed to fail.
North Korea’s obligation is to abandon completely all nuclear weapons, material and facilities. There’s no harm in starting with Yongbyon, but there is harm in stopping there.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The U.S. intelligence holds the trump card on the additional uranium processing sites and this should be used as future leverage.
I think at this stage it is too early to ask for those sites to be allowed for inspections as it took such a long time to convince North Korea to agree to a Yongbyon inspection. Since it’s already been discussed, we will get to observe North Korea’s reaction and how else they strategize to negotiate with the U.S.
Stephan Haggard: This is a tactical, not strategic issue. If there is to be a nuclear deal over the long run, it will have to address the other sites. I don’t think it was a misstep to signal that the U.S. has an interest that goes beyond Yongbyon.
Kelsey Davenport: It’s positive that both Trump and Pompeo emphasized that dialogue will continue and are optimistic about the prospects for progress. Both the United States and North Korea have invested heavily in this diplomatic process and it appears, in the proposals referenced by Trump and Ri, that there is a basis for agreement on a deal that trades dismantlement of Yongbyon for limited sanctions relief.
Ideally, the Hanoi outcome will underscore for both Trump and Kim that intensive working-level negotiations are necessary to close gaps and a better forum for hammering out details free from the intensive scrutiny that comes with a head-of-state summit. If both leaders publicly direct their negotiators to meet again and as soon as possible, that would send a significant signal that Trump and Kim remain committed to reaching a diplomatic outcome.
Danny Russel: At this point it will be no easy matter to persuade North Korea to move quickly, to deal with U.S. negotiators rather than with Trump directly, or to accept that its entire nuclear and missile program must be on the table.
The U.S. has squandered leverage and incentivized North Korea to hold out for more. But the decision to walk away calmly was the right one. Dropping all sense of urgency merely because the North has suspended testing was a mistake, particularly since its manufacturing and R&D work has not been halted.
Researchers at RAND calculate that in 2018 during the North’s moratorium on testing, it has increased the size and destructive power of its nuclear arsenal by some 70 percent. Time is not our friend here and it will not be easy to prevent North Korea from simply running down the clock on the Trump Administration — particularly given Trump’s massive legal and political woes.
Hoo Chiew Ping: I think Trump may have misinformed high expectations of North Korea to take up his offer during this Hanoi Summit. For anyone familiar with North Korean negotiation tactic, if the demand was met exactly the way it’s asked for, you’ll get the deal (think Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush).
If there was additional demand on top of a pre-agreed offer, it would frustrate North Korea and counter with counter demand that they know it’d be impossible for an adversary to comply (e.g. from partial sanctions relief to complete removal of all sanctions). This would definitely have an impact on the lower level working group negotiation, the purpose of the summit is for the leaders to lay down the concrete groundwork for their staff to work on. A bottom-up process would not work well for this set of leaders.
Stephan Haggard: Oddly, we are no worse off than we were. Diplomacy will now try to clean up the appearance of no progress. I suspect that the third time around, though, a deal will be clearly nailed down prior to a summit.
Kelsey Davenport: It is critical for U.S. negotiators act quickly to engage with North Korean counterparts before the momentum of the summit and Trump’s optimism is lost. Both Trump and Ri indicated that deal swapping dismantlement of Yongbyon for some sanctions relief is possible and desirable as a next step, so it makes sense for negotiators to focus on the details of declaring, inspecting, and dismantling the facilities at that site and determining which sanctions could be lifted in return.
The U.S. negotiating team must also do a better job keeping Congress in the loop on the Hanoi developments and the approach to negotiations going forward. The Trump administration’s hand at the negotiating table is strengthened by Congressional support, but weakened if it appears Congress will oppose any inducements the United States puts on the table.
Danny Russel: Unless the Administration can reestablish lost leverage with North Korea, there is relatively little that U.S. negotiators can do to get traction. Step one is ending China-bashing, settling the trade war, and tightening coordination among the five key partners.
Second is a concerted effort to implement and enforce the existing sanctions, particularly on China’s part.
Third is signaling plans to resume normal joint US-ROK defense exercises and stop the President’s misguided denigrating of the U.S. military and his weakening of our deterrence posture.
Hoo Chiew Ping: “The art of the deal” in international politics would be about providing incentives to convince your adversary that you are working with them under conciliatory terms but really you are actually doing a forceful persuasion (framed as coercive diplomacy) dealing from the position of power, without appearing condescending.
The “success” of the first summit is due to the face-giving gestures offered by Trump to meet Kim. The shortfall during the second summit is due to the abuse of the power of information (a.k.a. we know where your sites are so can we raise the price higher now). It’s time to go back to the pre-Hanoi consensus where both sides are willing to take up each other’s offer to move forward with the first step. I thought partial sanctions exemptions for Yongbyon inspection would be a good enough deal before we can tackle the tougher issues.
Stephan Haggard: This question should also be asked of the North Koreans; we cannot assume that the standoff was simply the result of U.S. miscalculation. The interesting question is whether Kim Jong Un miscalculated or whether he faces his own internal redlines that he couldn’t cross. I don’t personally think that Hanoi was a disaster or the end of the road. It sounds like some progress was made and that it is likely to continue.
The questions will shift to the political front. How do the Democrats play this? As a failure, or will they be tolerant if they can be shown that negotiations will move ahead. Democrats should be cautious and not form a judgment until briefed on what—if anything—was accomplished in Hanoi. We should not assume it was nothing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun