Despite great progress in trust building and an unprecedented personal relationship between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, it wasn’t enough to bridge the substantial differences that still exist between the U.S. and the Hermit Kingdom.
What we should keep in mind is that this relationship alone is unprecedented and was thought impossible two years ago. The Hanoi setback should be looked on as just that — a setback.
The President kept it cordial, stating that “I‘d much rather do it right than do it fast.”
Ever mindful of the ankle biters in the press, he framed the lack of a deal as a solid strategic move. “You always have to be prepared to walk… I could have signed an agreement today and then [the press] would have said, ‘Oh, what a terrible deal.’"
This end to the Hanoi talks is reminiscent of the failed Reykjavik Nuclear Talks between President Reagan and USSR Secretary Gorbachev.
Those talks collapsed at the last minute for a similar reason — Gorbachev, fearful of the announced “Star Wars” program of U.S. Strategic Missile Defense (SDI), sought to limit U.S. work in that field under the terms of the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Reagan argued that proposed SDI research was permitted and that he could not forget the pledge he made to Americans on SDI as a means of protection. So he walked.
Kim in Hanoi provided a similar road block as Gorbachev.
Long accustomed to bullying and bluffing, North Korea pressed for an end to the most biting of U.S. sanctions — which the U.S. has pledged to uphold, dependent on Kim’s progress.
On his side, Kim sees nuclear weapons as a guarantor of his regime’s security, and wanted sanctions relief in return for pausing his weapons program. The Trump Administration, insists on more permanent measures before dropping sanctions. Trump is all too aware that intransigence is a favored tactic of the Kim family.
Kim’s gambit is unsurprising because it has been effective — for decades, it has worked. In exchange for non-binding “pledges,” the West relaxed the sanctions that had originally brought North Korea to the table — and then once sanctions relaxed, and trade resumed, Pyongyang continued to proliferate nuclear weapons anyway.
In the infamous Agreed Framework of 1994, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to supply, gratis, 500 million tons of fuel oil annually while Pyongyang shut down its nuclear reactors (used to stockpile Plutonium) and allowed construction of South Korean/U.S. supplied Light Water Reactors. This construction was never completed, but Pyongyang received years of free fuel oil while it covertly continued its nuclear program — resulting in the Framework’s scrapping in 2002.
The president refuses to go down this rabbit hole — preferring to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors.
At the summit in Singapore last year, Trump and Kim signed a joint statement that promised a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Lacking specifics, it was clear that both sides define “denuclearization” very differently. This likely marked another stumbling block.
Pyongyang defines “demilitarization” broadly to include U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea, citing our past deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. (and South Korea), while ready for temporary measures like suspending annual exercises, is not prepared to permit withdrawal without a strict weapons/facilities inspection regime — which has not even been discussed yet.
Trump said that “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety… They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted.” Notably, this did not include all the areas on the U.S. list.
Unwilling to continue the talks based on these challenges, Trump politely walked away.
By doing so, the U.S. can attempt to establish another meeting. What must be kept in mind throughout is that Korean Denuclearization is a process; it was never about one signed agreement as truly the “devil is in the details.”
While yet to be scheduled, there will be another meeting in the future. We must remember that as long as talks continue a potential war is delayed; sanctions remain in place ensuring that Pyongyang, while making noise to the contrary, will be interested in talking again.
History proved that Reagan did the right thing at Reykjavik by walking out — the progress that was achieved eventually resulted in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviets. History may yet judge the “failed” Hanoi Summit as just another step on the fitful path to a more secure North East Asia.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent questsin TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.