The Hanoi Summit Failed Because Trump Is Pursuing The Wrong Goal

In the end, the reason the Hanoi Summit failed is because the Trump Administration is pursuing an unattainable goal.


Daniel Larison reacts to the collapse of talks at the Hanoi Summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un:

Hawks will be relieved that Trump walked away, but the collapse of talks with North Korea is an unfortunate, foreseeable product of an ill-conceived and poorly-run diplomatic process. The administration started out with unreasonable expectations and maximalist demands, and only very late in the process did they start to recognize that this was getting them nowhere. Their fixation on North Korean disarmament at the expense of pursuing improved relations probably doomed the negotiations from the beginning, and their unwillingness to offer any sanctions relief up front gave North Korea little incentive to compromise. The administration was pursuing the wrong goal in the wrong way for far too long, and as president Trump is responsible for the failure of the policy.

Larison, of course, is referring to the standing U.S. position that the DPRK agree to “denuclearization” as the ultimate goal of any talks with the United States and the idea that the goal of the current round of negotiations between the two nations are aimed at achieving this goal. As has been discussed for most of the past year, though, the problem with this view is that the United States and North Korea have fundamentally different ideas of what “denuclearization” means. For the United States, denuclearization means the end of the North Korean nuclear weapons research program and, eventually, the DPRK turning over both its nuclear raw materials and whatever weapons it has created over to an appropriate organization, presumably the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has traditionally been the vehicle for enforcement of agreements of this type. This position has been made clear in public statements by the President, by Secretary of State Pompeo, and, presumably, over the course of the face-to-face meetings that have taken place between the two nations over the past year. For North Korea, “denuclearization” means something entirely different. Specifically, as the North Koreans made clear in December and again via Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address in January, Specifically, for the North Koreans means not just that they make some concessions regarding their own nuclear program, although the nature and extent of those concessions is unclear, but also that the United States would remove its troops from South Korea (and potentially Japan as well) and declare an end to the “nuclear umbrella” policy that has been in place for decades under which both the Republic of Korea and Japan would be protected from attack by the threat that such an attack could result in retaliation from the United States up to and including the use of nuclear weapons where appropriate.

From the American and South Korean perspective, the North Korean definition of denuclearization is unacceptable because it would essentially give the North Koreans everything they want while giving up very little in return. Without American troops in the region and the threat of retaliation hanging over any threatened attack on the ROK, the DPRK would retain its conventional armed forces and the threat that they create for South Korea. As I’ve noted before, even without nuclear weapons North Korea could inflict significant damage on South Korea without having to resort to the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction thanks to its conventional forces. Most of those forces, of course, are concentrated on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone, and even in a conflict where the United States would be involved the DPRK would be able to inflict significant damage on South Korea before being defeated and/or suffering significant retaliatory damage. Given this, removing American troops and ending the “nuclear umbrella” policy would be insane absent significantly more positive advances from North Korea than we are likely to see in the foreseeable future.

From the North Korean perspective, of course, the American definition of denuclearization is unacceptable given the fact that it is quite clearly the existence of the nation’ s research program, the ballistic missile research program, and whatever nuclear weapons the DPRK does have that has led to both the current negotiations and the increased international prominence of Kim regime. Additionally, recent history stands as a stark lesson for any nation currently thinking of pursuing a nuclear research program. On the one hand, we have the examples of Iraq and Libya, which abandoned their WMD programs under international pressure only to see their nations beset by war and the leaders not only deposed but, eventually, killed. On the other hand, there is the example of Iran, which continued pursuing a nuclear weapons research program in the face of international sanctions and, eventually, was invited to the negotiating table where it was able to hammer out an agreement that led to the lifting of sanction and the return to the regime of funds that had been frozen by the United States and international banks since the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979. Based on this, the lesson seems clear. Give up your nuclear weapons and you risk creating an existential threat to your regime. Continue pursuing nuclear weapons research and the world will take you seriously. Add into this the fact that possessing nuclear weapons in and of itself is essentially a guarantee of security for your regime and it’s easy to see why the North Koreans are, as I have said before, extremely unlikely to give up their nuclear weapons or discontinue their research and development program. Indeed, this is something that DPRK officials made clear in December, and which Kim Jong Un repeated in his New Year’s Day address in December in which he stated that his country would move forward with its nuclear weapons program unless sanctions against his country were lifted. Given this, expecting the DPRK to “denuclearize” as the United States demands is unrealistic.

As I’ve said in the past there are things that could be accomplished if these negotiations were approached realistically. Tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have been on a razor’s edge since the end of the Korean War and ramped up significantly during the tit-for-tat exchanges that took place between President Trump and the North Korean leader throughout 2017, have calmed down significantly over the past year. Additionally, the relationship between North and South Korea appears to be better than it has been in several years during which the DPRK was engaged in provocative action such as firing missiles at a South Korean naval base and attacking a South Korean naval vessel. Making those changes permanent would be a good thing. Additionally, more formal negotiations aimed at bringing the Korean War to a formal end should be pursued, as should agreements designed to ease the conventional arms standoff across the Demilitarized Zone. However, as I have noted before (see here and here), if the United States continues to insist that the ultimate goal of these talks is the idea that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal, then these talks are doomed to fail.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Donald Trump, National Security, North Korea, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Eric Florack says:
  2. I didn’t miss it and it doesn’t alter the fundamental fact that the DPRK is not going to “denuclearize” in the sense that the Trump Administration is insisting.

  3. CSK says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Are you going to answer my question about whether Michael Cohen lied when he said that Trump did not abuse Melania, did not pay for an abortion for a woman he impregnated, and did not father an out-of-wedlock child?

    And no, North Korea is not going to denuclearize in the sense that Trump wants. We have evidence of that.

  4. Teve says:

    Why are we even having this discussion? North Korea must have already denuclearized.

    Donald J. Trump

    Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!

    5:56 AM · Jun 13, 2018 · Twitter for iPhone

    And since that couldn’t have been just a big dumb lie, I don’t know what you guys are even talkin about.

  5. Slugger says:

    One of the problems is that South Korea wasn’t at the table. Negotiations with the NorKs is obviously of vital importance to them, and however much they esteem Mr. Trump personally, no nation is going to let someone else speak for them. Especially in view of reports that the US is going to cease the annual joint military exercises with South Korea that have been held for years. People in Seoul must fear being sold out. BTW, did we get anything from Kim for dialing back our alliance with South Korea?
    We did get a nice clarification about the death of Otto Warmbier.

  6. SenyorDave says:

    IMO, the main goal of talks with North Korea is to get Trump the Nobel Peace prize. I say this without any sarcasm.

  7. Teve says:

    @SenyorDave: is there a Nobel prize for incompetence?

    Inside the Chaotic Early Days of Trump’s Foreign Policy

    As bad as you might have guessed, it was worse and stupider than that.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Eric Florack:

    1) It’s never been us trying to get North Korea to the table: they WANTED to sit down with us.
    2) We have in the past REFUSED to sit down as equals with this vicious thug regime because the only outcome possible was a diplomatic win for the Norks.
    3) Your idiot president GAVE them what they wanted, got NOTHING in return, elevated Kim, confused our allies, weakened our military preparedness and exonerated Kim of the murder of Otto Warmbier.

    That’s what happened. It’s also what everyone outside of your Cult of Cretins said would happen. Because it was utterly predictable.

    This is not a close call. If this was football game it would be a blow-out: Kim 49, Trump 0. In the history of the modern United States we have never suffered a diplomatic fiasco that approaches this one. That is what happened, and it happened because Trump is a bumbling idiot worshipped by people even stupider than he is. That’d be you.

  9. Teve says:

    From the Politico link

    At Flynn’s request, the Obama administration had held off on deciding whether to arm Kurdish fighters to help recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State terrorist group. According to two former NSC staffers, immediately after Trump took office, the NSC staff sent Flynn and his top deputies a detailed memo around 10 pages long that laid out the pros and cons of arming the Kurds, along with every document Trump needed to sign off on a decision. A few weeks passed, and a Flynn deputy told the staffers that what they’d sent up was too long and complicated — could they shorten it? So the staffers cut the memo in half. Days later, a new instruction: Could they cut it down further and turn much of it into graphics? The president preferred pictures. So the NSC staffers, with aid from intelligence officials, devised a graphical version. The issue dragged on anyway; it wasn’t until May that Trump decided to arm the Kurdish fighters.
    The former NSC staffers speak of that episode with both disbelief and anger. After all, in early February 2017, after they’d sent up the initial memo, a senior Trump administration official was quoted by The Washington Post as saying the decision on arming the Kurds was delayed because the plan presented had gaps and was the result of “poor staff work.”

  10. Mikey says:

    @Teve: Throwing the hard-working professional staff under the bus because the President is too stupid to grasp anything that isn’t presented in cartoon form.

    It’s hard to get more Trump than that.

  11. Joe says:

    I think the best case scenario is that Trump will decide he’s not going to get anything from Kim and then ignore him, thus ceding our efforts with NorK back to actual diplomats.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    I respect Larison, and yes, staff put some sort of goals on paper, but saying Trump is pursuing the wrong diplomatic goals is a category error.

  13. charon says:


    Perhaps offering a real estate deal could have sustained Trump’s motivations.

  14. Kathy says:


    If he does that, he’ll have another summit to sign an agreement. In itself, that’s fine. But El Cheeto will then boast his own diplomatic team were a bunch of idiot bumblers who could do nothing, so he had to step in, hold a summit, and make the agreement, which is the greatest agreement of all time!

    It’s never enough for this despicable individual even to win, he must have someone else humiliated in the process.

  15. CSK says:


    “…he must have someone else humiliated in the process.”

    Trump said as much in The Art of the Deal.

  16. mike shupp says:

    People here tend to see Trump’s empty-handed walkaway from negotiations in Hanoi as a defeat, and blame the man for unrealistic expectations, lack of preparation, and other sins.

    I don’t disagree but I wonder if Trump’ supporters will see it that way. He’s getting a lot of credit, from what I can see, for being bold and determined and even honorable for quitting so soon and walking out. He’s the man with the courage to say No! He asked for a lot, because he knew it MEANT a lot! The man who WOULDN’T betray his country for a photo session!

    I can hear the campaign slogans already. Ugh!

  17. CSK says:

    @mike shupp:

    Trump’s fans aren’t capable of seeing anything he does or says as anything but a triumph.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Which is the problem with the Trump is doomed in 2020 theory.

  19. Eric Florack says:

    @Doug Mataconis: personally I’m willing to sit back and see what develops. We know what not engaging has brought us… Absolutely nothing.