Forget about the niceties exchanged after the much-hyped Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un. To put it bluntly, the administration’s strategy towards Pyongyang has devolved into an utter disaster, and if things do not change soon, we could very well go back to the dark days of “fire and fury.”
So what happened? It may be that Trump walked into the summit in Hanoi with a very slick game plan. There has been ample reporting showing that the Trump administration knew that the North Koreans wanted large-scale sanctions relief in exchange for the closure of much of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. If working groups led by Special Representative Steve Biegun could not bridge the gap, why even hold the summit at all?
I have my own theory. Trump, knowing that Democrats would hold their hearing on the Michael Cohen saga during the first day of the summit in Hanoi, may have gambled that he could take advantage of his 48 hours on the world stage in a bigly way. Trump may have calculated that if he couldn’t get North Korea to bend to a grand bargain—or the total elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons for full sanctions relief—then he should walk. He may have assumed that he could look tough and show up the Democrats, either by making history and getting a mega-deal with Kim or walking out. Either way, he might have decided weeks ago that he needed a “win,” his domestic political fortunes trumping everything else.
There is evidence for this theory. A recent report from CNN shows that the North Koreans, after some clearly tough negotiations in which they even threatened to cancel the summit during working level meetings, did make a substantial offer in the end:
The negotiations were coming to a close at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel when a North Korean official rushed over to the US delegation.
With Trump preparing to leave the hotel, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui hurriedly brought the US delegation a message from Kim, two senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said. The message amounted to a last-ditch attempt by the North Koreans to reach a deal on some sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
US and North Korean officials had been haggling over a shared definition of the sprawling, three-square-mile site and the last-minute overture sought to advance the North Koreans’ proposal for dismantling it. But the message did not make clear whether the North Koreans shared the US’s expansive definition of the facility and US officials asked for clarity.
Choe rushed back to get an answer. Kim replied that it included everything on the site.
But even when Choe returned with that response, the US delegation was unimpressed and didn’t want to resume the negotiations. Within hours, Trump would be wheels up for Washington.
While such a deal was far from perfect, Trump could have very easily restarted negotiations right then and there. He could have quite possibly made a deal for Yongbyon with less sanctions relief than Kim was looking for. One possibility would have been to trade three of five UN Security Council resolutions that the north wanted lifted for an agreement to fully support all inter-Korean economic development projects presently under consideration. Such a deal would have brought tens of billions of dollars in economic development to North Korea. And if snapback provisions were built into the deal to ensure that Kim wouldn’t be rewarded should he decide to squirm his way out of an agreement, the risk to American interests and allies would have been near zero.
But we will never know—and now things are about to get worse, and fast. North Korea has rebuilt its main space launch testing site, something it seems it was doing since before the Hanoi summit ever got underway. While we still don’t know their true intentions, one could theorize that, if during working level meetings the north did not see any possibility of a compromise agreement, they commenced the building as a way to put pressure on Team Trump. And with satellites overhead watching everything North Korea does, this was a perfectly good way to achieve the desired effect. Compound that with new activity at one of Kim’s main ICBM factories, and the stage is set for trouble.
From here, things get even worse. Several weeks ago during an address at Stanford University, Biegun seemed to suggest a much more conciliatory position on behalf of the administration. He said:
For our part, we have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue—simultaneously and in parallel—all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer, along with planning for a bright future for the Korean people and the new opportunities that will open when sanctions are lifted and the Korean Peninsula is at peace, provided that North Korea likewise fulfills its commitment to final, fully verified denuclearization.
While such a statement can be interpreted many ways, it suggests an approach that goes beyond an obsession with nuclear disarmament. It makes it look like the administration is trying to craft a truly new relationship with North Korea as laid out in the Singapore Declaration. That includes building trust, a stable peace regime, a focus on finding the remains of soldiers from the Korean War, as well as denuclearization—just as in the document signed last June.
What a difference a few weeks make. Just yesterday, a senior State Department official giving a background briefing—it was surely Biegun: language left in the transcript outs him—explained, “[N]obody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being—all the other steps being taken.” While Biegun never used the words “step-by-step” at Stanford, there was surely an expectation that far more was going to happen in Hanoi than a fixation on nukes.
And if Trump was truly trying to blow up the deal, finding the ultimate saboteur would have been easy. Enter John Bolton. Bolton, the man responsible for landing the final blow against the Clinton-era detente with North Korea that started in the mid-1990s, is suddenly running point on North Korea policy after the Hanoi summit. In a series of interviews last Sunday, he made it clear that the summit was a “success,” but in a way only Bolton could pull off. “I think it was unquestionably a success for the United States because the president protected, defended American interests,” Bolton explained on CNN. “The president’s view is he gave nothing away,” Bolton said on CBS. With Bolton now saying the administration is willing to drop even more sanctions on North Korea if they won’t disarm unilaterally, who knows where this all leads?
I do know one thing. Any nation that has dozens of nuclear weapons has options—and surrender is not likely to be one of them. That’s something President Trump should keep in mind, especially as spring is historically when the north likes to test its latest missile technologies. Here’s hoping Trump can come to his senses after the “walk,” as using North Korea for domestic leverage could blow up in his face—literally.