Interview

The Hanoi Talks Failed. But That Could Be a Blessing in Disguise.

Former President Barack Obama’s arms control czar says Trump gained by showing he’s “not a soft touch.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their second summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their second summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images)

This week, U.S. President Donald Trump failed to clinch a landmark nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. But Gary Samore, who served as former President Barack Obama’s arms control czar, tells Foreign Policy that the breakdown in talks could ultimately be a good thing for the United States. Samore is now the senior executive director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.

Foreign Policy: Do you believe the Hanoi meeting marked a collapse in the negotiations, as a lot of the reporting has suggested, or is this just another step in what could still turn out to be a worthwhile negotiation?

Gary Samore: I see it as a hiccup that might actually have some very beneficial effects in terms of convincing both leaders that there has to be better preparation before another summit is held. For Trump, it’s a lesson that his personal rapport with Kim is no substitute for working out the details of an agreement beforehand rather than trying to do it face to face. And for Kim, it’s a demonstration that he can’t circumvent the U.S. government and get a sweetheart deal directly from Trump. So, in that respect, I think the failure in Hanoi may end up being a blessing in disguise.

FP: Who would you say gained more politically from this summit: the United States or North Korea?

GS: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that Trump benefited tremendously by demonstrating to Kim that he’s not a soft touch, which may have been Kim’s impression coming out of the Singapore meeting. I thought Trump handled the breakdown pretty graciously by praising Kim, making clear that he is still interested in lifting sanctions, making clear that he’s willing to continue—in fact, eager to continue—the freeze on U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and offering to meet again if there’s a deal to be had.

FP: Was Trump right to express support for a freeze on U.S.-South Korea military exercises? Or was he handing Kim an undeserved concession?

GS: Whether we like it or not, there’s a de facto double freeze in effect. Kim Jong Un has accepted a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and in return the United States has agreed to suspend or freeze additional joint military exercises. So the two are directly connected and may not be written down, but that’s the understanding that emerged out of Singapore. I think there are good reasons why Kim will continue for the time being to keep his moratorium on testing in place. First of all, he’s probably made enough technical progress in terms of developing thermonuclear weapons and long-range missiles that a continuation of the moratorium doesn’t really impose a very significant tactical price. And second, after Kim shifted to diplomacy and put in place the test freeze, he’s enjoyed very significant economic benefits in terms of de facto sanctions relief, as China and Russia have basically eased enforcement of sanctions, looked the other way for smuggling, and so forth. So, if Kim resumes testing, he runs the risk of provoking Moscow and Beijing to once again support Washington’s maximum pressure campaign.

FP: Is the United States in as strong a position to restore the maximum pressure campaign today than when Trump first came into office? Could it put that back together?

GS: Only if Kim Jong Un misbehaves. As long as he continues to behave by not carrying out provocative tests, then the United States is not going to be able to mobilize China and Russia to support maximum pressure.

FP: Has this drawn-out negotiation provided the North Korean regime with political cover for advancing parts of its nuclear program, including by building up stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium? Has it played to Kim’s advantage?

GS: Yes, and that’s why the U.S. objective in Hanoi was to get a North Korean agreement to shut down and dismantle their entire fissile material production complex—including not only Yongbyon but the undeclared enrichment facilities outside Yongbyon. So that’s going to be a major stumbling block assuming negotiations resume at the working level. The other big issue will be what we pay the North Koreans in order to curtail or cease fissile material production. And as Trump said in his press conference, the big dispute there is over sanctions. We’ve offered to establish liaison offices. We’ve offered to issue a symbolic declaration that the Korean War is over. But the real dispute is over the magnitude of sanctions relief.

FP: Do you think Kim is ultimately willing to give up his entire nuclear weapons program, which is the primary goal of the negotiation?

GS: No, I think he may be willing to accept limits on the nuclear program, and in particular limits on an expansion of the program, in numbers of nuclear weapons and missile capability, in exchange for substantial sanctions benefits. But under current circumstances, I don’t think he’s willing to give up his nuclear weapons. Now, this process is going to play out over many, many years, I mean long past the life of the Trump administration. So, you know, 10 or 20 years from now there may be conditions under which North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons. The objective here is to get limits on the program for the time being while we try to create conditions in the long term that might make elimination possible.

FP: So what’s the value of this process if Kim won’t abandon his nuclear weapons program?

GS: Oh, I think it’s much better for us to limit the size of their stockpile and the range of their missiles rather than have an unconstrained program. So, from a national security standpoint we benefit tremendously in the near term in limiting their capabilities and potentially in the long term in creating conditions for denuclearization.

FP: This is beginning to sound like the Obama administration’s Iran negotiations.

GS: Well, it’s similar, except North Korea is much harder because it already has a substantial nuclear weapons capability. So we’re trying to limit and roll back an existing capability. In the case of Iran, we were in a much stronger bargaining position because it didn’t have nuclear weapons yet.

FP: The Trump administration harshly criticized Obama for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that placed no constraints on Iran’s expansionist goals in the Middle East, including its support for Shiite militias throughout the region. Should this deal require North Korea to rein in its nefarious activities, including its prohibited supply of arms to groups throughout the Middle East and Africa?

GS: Well, I would put priority on the nuclear weapons and missiles as posing the most significant threat to our allies and potentially to the United States directly. One big difference between Iran and North Korea is that Iran has aspirations to be a very strong regional power and they at least have the capabilities to spread their influence as they’ve done in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and Lebanon and so forth. North Korea is just trying to survive. I mean it’s a poor, weak, and small country.

FP: What are the prospects for this administration clinching a landmark nuclear deal with North Korea?

GS: I do think it’s possible to get an agreement that would have at least impose some constraint on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The deal on the table that Kim Jong Un has offered is to dismantle Yongbyon. That has some value, but obviously a much greater value would be to dismantle their entire complex to produce fissile material. So I think that’s the goal that the Trump administration should seek to obtain, but in order to get that, they’re going to have to offer pretty substantial sanctions relief because we would be asking Kim to accept not only a very significant limit on his program but also the verification system that goes with that, which is going to be pretty intrusive and difficult for the North Koreans to manage. I think it’s worth trying to get that. I don’t know whether it’s possible. For me, the dismantlement of, or the elimination of, North Korea’s nuclear weapons is a decades-long process, and it’s going to continue after the Trump administration is out of office. And I think keeping that process going is worth accepting an incremental approach because that’s the only approach that is achievable. I have a strong preference for trying to get a much bigger deal to end fissile material production. But, you know, whether that’s attainable or not I think is the question that the negotiators will have to try to work out—and that means, as I say, giving North Korea some pretty substantial sanctions relief.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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