There’s a Silver Lining in the Clouds Over the North Korea Negotiations

The failure of high-level discussions may force Washington and Pyongyang to start more effective working-level talks.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1. (Minh Hoang/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1. (Minh Hoang/AFP/Getty Images)

HANOI—On Thursday afternoon, as it became clear that lunch between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump was off and that there would be no signing of an agreement between their two countries, storm clouds briefly gathered over Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi.

In the nearby Metropole hotel, the mood had darkened as well. The summit between the leaders was supposed to kick off a process of some form of denuclearization, through which the two countries would try to build a better relationship. Eventually, the sides hoped, zero-sum “I win, you lose” politics would be replaced by win-win cooperation.

But the United States and North Korea couldn’t agree on the value of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. In a press conference that took the place of the scheduled lunch and signing, Trump said the North Koreans had wanted all sanctions lifted in return for the closure of Yongbyon. At midnight, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contradicted the U.S. president, saying that his team had only sought some sanctions relief as per five articles adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 2016 and 2017. A Trump administration official later confirmed that Ri’s description was more accurate. Regardless, the two sides couldn’t agree on the core issue, and the summit was abruptly adjourned.

As anticlimactic as the surprise conclusion of the meeting might seem, there are several potential positives to this week’s turn of events. First and foremost: This isn’t over. Trump was very careful in his press conference to indicate that he wasn’t interested in waging more sanctions, pointing to “a lot of great people in North Korea that have to live also.” He also left the issue of defining denuclearization open, noting that “Kim has a certain vision, and it’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago. And I think, you know, eventually we’ll get there.”

Now that the risks of the top-down approach have been exposed, a more normal diplomatic pathway might be appealing.

In other words, there might still room to talk. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized as much, saying he looked forward to working with the Korean side “in the weeks ahead.” Indeed, the collapse of leader-level discussions in Hanoi could pave the way for more effective working-level talks in the months ahead. In recent months, it had become clear that the North Koreans were not terribly interested in such talks, perhaps thinking that it would be more effective to go straight to Trump. But now that the risks of the top-down approach have been exposed, a more normal diplomatic pathway might gain traction.

Additionally, both leaders have a chance to look tough at home. They can say that they didn’t buckle under the pressure to get a deal, and they will be able to return at a later date to push talks forward. In terms of domestic politics, no deal really is better than a bad deal.

There are, however, real downsides to the failure in Hanoi. The main one is that the two sides have lost a tremendous amount of momentum, a precious commodity in this tortured relationship. Leaving the talks without even the smallest agreement on non-nuclear-related issues is a missed opportunity. Security issues sit at the heart of this process, but there was a chance to address humanitarian, economic, and cultural issues as well. The two sides will eventually need to work together on such matters to bolster security cooperation.

The lack of progress becomes more worrisome as election season begins in the United States. For the North Koreans, one danger is that, if Trump loses the 2020 election, the next U.S. president may not be interested in working with North Korea. For the negotiating process to stick, the two sides need to generate enough momentum that the slow detente would be hard to stop. In that sense, Hanoi represents lost time.

Finally, the failure will put strain on both the U.S.-South Korean alliance and on the maximum pressure doctrine, which is geared toward persuading third-party countries to implement sanctions. Seoul, which has been patiently waiting for its ally to create space for inter-Korean cooperation, was expecting a breakthrough in Hanoi. One wonders how much longer officials will be willing to let the United States lead. At some point, they may seek creative ways to push forward in defiance of Washington. Concurrently, if Pyongyang can convince other governments in the region that it was the Americans who blew the summit, interest in sanctions enforcement in Asia and beyond may continue to wane.

Overall, the Hanoi summit was a major disappointment, but whether we will end up calling it a catastrophe depends on what the two sides take from it. The storm clouds passed quickly over Hanoi; perhaps the climate will be entirely different next time Trump and Kim sit down together.

Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at APARC, Stanford University.

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