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.