Who to blame for the breakdown?
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
As soon as U.S.-North Korea talks collapsed in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28, the blame game began. Some Blue House sources fingered U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, telling the press on background that at the last moment, Bolton pushed for the inclusion of an additional uranium enrichment site for dismantlement in addition to the Yongbyon reactor complex North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly put on the table. It would not be out of character for Bolton to be deeply skeptical of North Korea, or even to propose poison pill verification standards. On the other hand, the Blue House is itself a dubious source for the Bolton story because the Moon Jae-in administration was clearly looking for scapegoats after signaling rather naively that Hanoi would lead to a diplomatic breakthrough and the resumption of North-South economic projects. Moreover, after being criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump for proposing the Libya model for North Korea last year, Bolton has been careful not to appear as an obstacle to the president’s desire for a big deal with Kim.
For its part, Pyongyang initially blamed Japan. Tokyo was clearly relieved Trump did not give away too much in Hanoi, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views probably align with Bolton’s. Yet the Japanese government was as surprised as Seoul was that the president walked out of the talks. It is easy to understand why Pyongyang would initially scapegoat Japan. Japan is always the easiest target for North Korean propaganda (North Korean children are taught that Japanese are “wolves in human form”), casting Japan as the villain has the additional advantage of pouring more oil onto the fires of Japan-South Korea relations and avoiding too much criticism of Trump before Pyongyang completed its own assessment of what happened and whether talks could be salvaged.
For his part, Trump blamed Congressional Democrats for holding public hearings with his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, during the Hanoi talks. As the president tweeted on March 3, “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’” It is hard to imagine that the North Koreans were somehow convinced to take a harder line because of the embarrassing details Michael Cohen publicly shared with Congress while Trump was in Hanoi. It is somewhat easier to imagine the president emerging bleary-eyed and distracted for his summit with Kim after staying up all night in Hanoi watching in furor as Cohen described being ordered by the president to lie to Mrs. Trump about extra-marital affairs.
Japan, Bolton, Michael Cohen and Trump’s temperament could all have been factors. But the most obvious reason the talks failed has been sitting in plane view all along: North Korea was not prepared to denuclearize in any meaningful way. Despite President Trump’s and President Moon’s efforts to introduce Kim Jong-un to the world as a dramatically new kind of leader, Kim was essentially trying to sell the same deal his father and grandfather had sought. That deal was a freeze at the Yongbyon complex followed by salami-slicing inspections with the elusive promise of limited dismantlement; symbolic and highly reversible demolition of small pieces of nuclear-related facilities (the cooling tower in 2008 and the Sohae rocket testing site in 2018); the lifting of all meaningful U.S. sanctions; and de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state with Pyongyang offering to eliminate its untouched nuclear arsenal when the United States agrees to do the same under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (i.e., never).
Trump assumed he was breaking entirely new ground because he had the guts to engage in direct leader-level diplomacy. However, even that was part of the traditional Kim family playbook. Kim Jong-il sought a summit with President Bill Clinton through Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 2000, and then used half a dozen intermediaries to try to get President George W. Bush to hold a summit. The Clinton and Bush administrations demurred because both presidents realized a summit should come after significant and verifiable progress toward denuclearization, and not before. Trump, in contrast, had no faith in his technical experts and complete confidence in his own personal negotiating prowess — an outlook that suited Pyongyang just fine as Kim heaped praise on Trump and scorn on his negotiators going into Hanoi. In the end, though, the negotiators on the U.S. side were able to inject enough realism into Trump’s approach that he appears to have recognized in Hanoi that he was not being offered the historic denuclearization he had claimed in Singapore. Reports that North Korea had begun reassembling the launch facilities at Sohae before the Hanoi summit suggest that Pyongyang may have sensed the happy talk in Singapore might have been the high-water mark.
Another way to look at the breakdown is to recognize that all Trump achieved in Singapore was a de facto “freeze-for-freeze” agreement under which the North suspended nuclear and missile tests and the United States and the South suspended major military exercises. In 2017, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations (UN) dismissed China’s proposal for just such a “freeze-for-freeze” as “insulting,” and the State Department spokeswomen rightly rejected it as an illogical comparison between lawful and regular deterrence measures and unlawful North Korea actions that violated multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Yet all we have in place today is the Sino-Russian proposed freeze-for-freeze that the Trump administration roundly rejected only 18 months ago.
Historians are not likely to look at this stage of diplomacy as a success for Presidents Trump or Moon. Future historians could also argue that this was the moment when Kim Jong-un lost his best chance for peace and prosperity. The question is whether he was ever really interested in that. Hopefully diplomacy will take a more realistic path.