Trump and Kim Need to Go Small

Hanoi flopped because of unrealistic expectations.

Art depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump is on display at local stores during their summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)
Art depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump is on display at local stores during their summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un left Hanoi after last month’s second U.S.-North Korea summit with their negotiating strategies apparently in tatters. Neither leader chose to pursue a remotely credible plan. Trump wanted to “go big,” sealing an abandonment of weapon of mass destruction programs in return for sanctions relief. Kim wanted sanctions to be significantly eased in return for significant but not adequate concessions.

If the two sides want to make progress, realism has to be the first priority. April is a busy month in North Korea, with the legislature meeting, the Central Committee likely to meet, and all hands on deck for the anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15. That crowded political calendar means patience may be needed while Pyongyang navigates these events. But the aim should be to get both sides to promptly re-engage in active dialogue. A deal is within reach if the parties can move past the disconnect evident in Hanoi.

The failure of the Hanoi talks reflects a mix of overreach, intransigence, and misunderstanding on both sides. Trump said that Kim requested the lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions “in their entirety.” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho retorted at a late-night press conference that Kim had only asked for five of 11 sets of sanctions to go. Trump made clear that the price of extensive sanctions relief was much higher than North Korea’s offer to close down its Yongbyon nuclear research complex. Ri called North Korea’s offer the most it could give at the “current level of trust between the two countries.”

One deal asked Washington to go well past its comfort zone on sanctions relief in return for measured steps on denuclearization, and another asked Pyongyang to go well past its comfort zone on denuclearization in return for sanctions relief that would only be implemented after it had given Washington what it most wanted. Those overambitious, imbalanced deals left both parties empty-handed.

Assigning blame for the Hanoi failure is unhelpful. In South Korea, which has made huge efforts to bring Pyongyang and Washington to the table but faces very real limits to its influence, some government officials privately (and angrily) hold the United States responsible. But North Korea is also culpable. Its call for major sanctions relief represented a gross misreading of the atmosphere in Washington. Members of the U.S. Congress and the press were already criticizing Trump for being too cozy with Kim and suggesting that, faced with potential political and legal troubles at home, he risked short-selling U.S. interests for the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Similarly, Trump’s ultimate pitch for Pyongyang to “go big” was off-key. The North Korean public supports the country’s nuclear deterrent capability, and while the military and intelligence services may never allow that capability to be fully given up, they certainly will not allow it for a mere promise of future gains. Even if Kim had been of a mind to accept Trump’s offer, the North Korean establishment would have closed ranks against it. Kim doesn’t operate in a vacuum; the people around him, and their views, matter.

A third summit seems out of the question in the immediate future. And rewinding to the negotiating positions going into Hanoi will not be productive. But there is a possible way forward.

A more realistic deal that should have been put on the table at Hanoi could now be the basis for next steps. That deal would see North Korea trade the fully verified closure of all or part of the Yongbyon complex for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a light manufacturing zone on the inter-Korean border. This economic incentive, which would require a measure of sanctions relief, could be bundled with the restart of inter-Korean tourism at Mt. Kumgang and in the city of Kaesong, plus South Korean investments in remediating the deficiencies of North Korean transport infrastructure.

The deal could be accompanied by a declaration formally ending the Korean War, detailed talks on the opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, or both. This would at least to some extent address North Korea’s security concerns in the process of addressing its economic ones.

A modest deal like this builds on several facts.

First, Yongbyon is valuable, but because it does not represent the entirety of North Korea’s fissile material production, it’s not that valuable.

Second, a measure-for-measure approach is the only way to diminish North Korea’s nuclear capacity. Although it makes sense to keep one eye on the long-term ambition of eliminating all North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, it is hard to imagine in the foreseeable future Pyongyang acquiescing to becoming, as Kim Il Sung once put it, “a man without defense secrets, just a naked man.”

Third, restarting Kaesong would be good for North Korea—especially because it would put a symbolically important dent in the U.N. sanctions regime—but it would not be that good. At the same time, it would create an opportunity for Washington to test Pyongyang’s stated desire to significantly alter its economy—including the claim that Pyongyang made last April (and subsequently reiterated) to be pivoting from military to civilian economic development. Moreover, it would kill Pyongyang’s argument that Seoul is failing to make good on the commitments made at inter-Korean summits in 2018. Given that Washington’s hopes for denuclearization ride in some part on economic inducements, getting a deeper understanding of North Korea’s own perspective on its development should be a higher priority for the United States than it currently appears to be.

From the day it opened, there were very real impediments to the success of Kaesong. It suffered from onerous customs, pre-industrial communications, and inflexible access for South Koreans. Pyongyang insisted that wages be paid to the state instead of workers. Energetic improvement in all these areas would evidence a genuine desire on North Korea’s part to substantively change its economic relations with the outside world, and even its own people.

The friendly nature of Trump’s and Kim’s farewells in Hanoi suggests there may be enough goodwill for pragmatic deal-making. The South Korean public is on board with dialogue and stands ready to bear the burden of cross-border economic projects. The chance is there to test North Korea by pursuing a modest deal in fresh talks. Sticking with maximalism offers no path to recovery from Hanoi.

Christopher Green is Senior Adviser for the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group.

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