Was Hanoi a failure?
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.
Despite the fact that the Vietnam summit ended abruptly, U.S.-North Korea watchers are debating whether it was actually a failure. What are the arguments for and against qualifying it as a failure?
A negative assessment is easy to draw. Despite the lessons of the Singapore summit, U.S. President Donald Trump once again accepted a meeting with Kim Jong-un with very little time to prepare. He continues to believe in his prowess as a negotiator — all evidence to the contrary — and in Hanoi, Vietnam, this hubris carried a cost.
To understand why requires a closer look at the logic of summitry. To be sure, sometimes leaders can forge surprising agreements on the basis of personal chemistry. But typically, a summit simply ratifies what lower-level officials have already negotiated. If negotiators had not reached agreements satisfactory to both sides, then the summit is bound to be disappointing. Trump should not claim credit for rejecting a bad deal; he should have avoided the whole charade in the first place.
My assessment is more cautious, and is based on new information we have from the U.S. side about what went wrong. Over the second half of 2018, the United States recognized that its dream of an Iran-style deal was a fantasy. In the Iran case, Tehran agreed to — and actually implemented — most major components of the deal prior to securing significant sanctions relief.
North Korea, by contrast, has insisted throughout the crisis that small reciprocal steps would be required to build trust. The United States ultimately acknowledged this reality going into Hanoi. But what would be traded for what precisely?
Both sides miscalculated, but arguably the North’s overreach was more serious. According to the U.S. special representative for North Korean affairs, Stephen Biegun, the North Koreans offered to trade the dismantlement of two facilities at Yongbyon — the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants — for a rollback of all United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed since 2016.
These might have only been opening bids, but both aspects of the North Korean offer were disingenuous. On the one hand, the North Koreans underestimated U.S. determination to get a full picture of North Korea’s nuclear program, not only in Yongbyon but also at additional sites outside it. With over 300 structures at the facility, shuttering two — while an important first step — was a fairly modest offer. Not only would it leave difficult negotiations about the two operating reactors on the site, there are strong suspicions about other activities at Yongbyon that need to be closed as well.
And, of course, this offer does nothing with respect to stockpiles of fissile material and nuclear weapons outside Yongbyon nor the missile program. Offering a formalization of the freeze on nuclear and missile testing is not a concession; it is a form of blackmail.
With respect to sanctions relief, Trump said that the North Koreans sought a lifting of “all” sanctions. Critics in both the United States and South Korea questioned this claim, as did the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in an unusual late-night press conference.
It now appears, however, that Trump was closer to the truth than was Ri Yong-ho. If we look closely at the sanctions imposed by the council since 2016, they are precisely the sanctions that matter: those that affect North Korea’s commercial trade and import of key commodities such as oil. Lifting those sanctions would effectively remove any leverage the United States and South Korea have over the negotiations.
Of course, the failure of Hanoi must be a disappointment for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and conservative critics have pounced. But expectations for Hanoi were exaggerated to begin with and there is strong evidence that negotiations will resume.
What is the best we might we have expected out of the Hanoi meeting? Moon and others have proposed an end-of-war declaration, but that is largely a symbolic gesture. Such an agreement would not fully replace the armistice; it would just signal the willingness to do so as relations improve and progress is made on the nuclear issue.
And the North Koreans could have destroyed a few more things as they did with a cooling tower at Yongbyon in 2008 and with nuclear and missile facilities since. But everyone knows none of these steps have proven irreversible.
In short, symbols are insubstantial; everyone who watches this process closely knew the main outcome of Hanoi would be the beginning — not the end — of negotiations. What we were hoping for was nothing more than the start of a process that would take months if not years to bring to a final conclusion.
In that regard, the apparent willingness of both the United States and North Korea to resume negotiations is the true test of Hanoi, and we simply don’t yet know where that process might lead.
Moon played a key role in initiating a process. This is an historic achievement in itself. Whether it produces a meaningful agreement is yet to be seen, and we should not reach a judgment prematurely. Even if it ultimately fails, are we worse off than not talking? I don’t think so. Hanoi might ultimately prove a failure, but as with so many historic events, a snap judgment is unwise.