It can be argued that Donald Trump really needed badly to come home from the historic Hanoi Summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un with a deal. The summit was overshadowed by Trump’s domestic woes as his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified under oath in front of Congress of the President’s illegal activities along with other damaging allegations. Max Boot, a military historian and Council on Foreign Relations fellow, openly wondered, “So what concessions will Trump make to Kim to steal the headlines back from Michael Cohen?” Fortunately, Trump did no such thing. Instead, the talks collapsed, and he came home empty-handed.
Trump said in a press conference before departing back to the United States that the Hanoi Summit broke down after Kim Jong-un refused to budge on his demand that the U.S. lift all of its sanctions without committing to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. That certainly, if accurate, is a good reason to end the summit. North Korea, however, gave a different account of why the summit broke down. According to their foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, the regime only proposed “partial” sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling enrichment capabilities at its primary nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The latter’s account of why the summit ended prematurely seems to be the more accurate according to Jeffery Lewis, director at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The North Koreans said the U.S. missed a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
So far Trump’s summitry has not produced any significant new agreements to change the strategic threat North Korea poses to the region and the United States despite some of his own rhetoric and that of his supporters. After Trump returned from the first summit between him and Kim Jong-un in Singapore last June, he falsely claimed that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” The Singapore Declaration that both leaders signed was merely a confidence-building measure rather than a binding agreement. There was nothing in the declaration to halt North Korea’s nuclear production in whole or in part. In fact, there is every indication that nuclear production continues to this day.
Last July, more than a month after the Singapore Summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified in front of a Senate committee that North Korea continued to produce fissile material for nuclear bombs despite Kim Jong-un’s pledge to denuclearize. In November, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that operations at Yongbyon appear to be expanding. And as recently as a month ago Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats gave Senate testimony that the North Korean regime was unlikely to “completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.”
Outside the joint agreement at the Singapore Summit, Trump agreed to halt U.S. military exercises in the region, and Pyongyang agreed to dismantle one of its rocket testing facilities. Getting the regime to dismantle a missile facility seemed to be a positive development. While the process of dismantling that particular facility did indeed begin, it was never completed. All the while North Korea continued their missile program at at least 20 undeclared facilities according to a satellite image study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). During the same Senate hearing that Dan Coats gave his testimony a month ago, CIA Director Gina Haspel testified that the “regime is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States.”
Where Trump has had success thus far is in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region. He has come a long way from his “fire and fury” comment. Since dialogue began North Korea has not detonated any nuclear devices or launched any ballistic missiles. Those are facts Trump loves to highlight. However, not testing nuclear bombs or launching missiles does nothing to relieve the nuclear threat and is not the denuclearization that America and its allies seek. Given the evidence that Pyongyang continues to expand its nuclear and missile capabilities, time becomes a crucial factor. Every day that goes by the regime’s arsenal becomes more advanced and potentially larger. Not only does this make the threat greater, it also makes it more difficult and complicated to implement any potential verification process that is necessary for a denuclearization deal.
On the surface it seems Trump does not fully grasp the concept of how important time is while he simultaneously seems to fully ignore the evidence that Pyongyang is making progress on its nuclear and missile programs. During his UN General Assembly appearance last year, he stated he was not in a rush for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. “We’re not playing the time game. If it takes two years, three years or five months, it doesn’t matter. There’s no nuclear testing, and there’s not testing of rockets.” Trump repeated the same message about denuclearization just over a week ago in an Oval Office press briefing. “I’m in no rush. As long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal. But there has been no testing.”
Going into the Hanoi Summit, not only did Trump seem to not understand the fundamentals of the North Korean threat, but he seemed to be ill-prepared. Normally most of the hard work in negotiations is done before a summit begins while the last few remaining sticking points are for the leaders to negotiate together. Instead, Trump seemed to put excessive faith in his personality and his ability to negotiate even though there were many unresolved issues. This certainly was a contributing factor to the summit’s failure to produce an agreement and it should have never been handled this way.
The collapse of the summit has not permanently altered North Korea’s desire to continue discussions. Kim Jong-un has already indicated he is open to future meetings and that is a positive sign that serious damage has not been done. While it comes as a relief that Trump did not make a bad deal either for cheap domestic political reasons or by his inability to grasp significant concepts about the North Korean threat, the clock is still ticking, and Pyongyang is still expanding their nuclear and missile programs. For now, tensions with North Korea remain lower than at anytime since the armistice that paused the Korean War, but that does not mean the situation is less dangerous—it is the opposite.