The second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi ended earlier than expected when President Trump decided to walk away before signing a joint statement with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s departure raises the question of whether and how the White House will increase the pressure on Kim to secure a verifiable commitment to denuclearization.
In his press conference, President Trump noted the breakdown in talks emerged over disagreement on sanctions relief. “They wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety,” Trump said, yet Kim would only agree to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The impasse confirmed long-standing assessments that there is a perception gap between Pyongyang and Washington regarding a vision of denuclearization.
Despite pressure on Trump to deliver a diplomatic victory in Hanoi, he did not give in to Pyongyang’s extreme demands to secure a “grand bargain.” Moreover, Trump’s resolve reaffirms Washington’s commitment to North Korea’s final and fully verified denuclearization.
Trump’s decision to walk away undermines Kim Jong Un’s tried and true deceptive strategy of dragging out the diplomatic process to extort concessions. Yet, likely to Kim’s surprise, Trump’s insistence that he is in “no rush” for a deal has shown a willingness from the U.S. to play the long game – but on Washington’s terms.
It remains unclear, however, if the administration has a specific plan to bridge the perception gap with North Korea, given the president’s avowed determination to keep working toward a deal. Towards the end of his press conference, President Trump said, “I don’t want to talk about increasing sanctions.” Yet, he insisted the U.S. would continue enforcing all existing sanctions until North Korea presents the U.S. with an offer that meets our objectives. At the same press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically highlighted how North Korea’s offer did not address nuclear facilities beyond Yongbyon, ballistic missiles, or warheads and weapons systems.
The Trump administration must remember that all North Korea sanctions should only be lifted once the North Koreans comply with the sanctions requirements, which cover myriad issues such as the nuclear program, ballistic missiles, weapons proliferation, global illicit activities, human rights abuses, exploitation of overseas laborers, and cyber operations. If sanctions are treated as bargaining chips in a quid pro quo exchange, this would not only violate the letter of the sanctions, but also undermine their spirit. Moreover, the administration could set dangerous precedents that will undermine credibility of future sanctions.
Moving forward, the Trump administration needs to stay the course in balancing working-level negotiations and calibrating pressure to impose costs on Pyongyang for its misdeeds. Such calibration would entail enforcing sanctions without backsliding, imposing more sanctions if necessary, sustaining military readiness, protecting human rights, responding to cyber threats, and continuing to influence North Korea’s second tier leadership and broader population by sending foreign media and information through radio broadcasts and USB thumb drives.
Now is the time for President Trump to remind Kim that Washington is not only ready to confront his deceptive diplomatic long con, but that the U.S. also will require Kim’s compliance and mutual cooperation to achieve peace and prosperity for the Korean peninsula. It all comes down to Kim making the right strategic choice in return for a brighter future.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew ha is a research associate. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk.