North Korea

Trump’s Walk Away Is Not A Disaster

By Andrej Mrevlje |
A view of the table in the room which was supposed to host a working lunch between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, that was cancelled, during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in HanoiThomson Reuters

This week’s Yonder post is a quick note on some of the facts that preceded the summit in Hanoi, which most of the mainstream media called a disaster. Here are a few points trying to explain why this is not necessarily the case. It is impossible to resolve a North Korean issue in a few hours and with only two presidential meetings. We may ask ourselves whether President Trump is the right person to undertake this endeavor, but this is another issue, considering the fact that the two dictators like each other.

”Great to be back from Vietnam, an amazing place,” @realDonaldTrump tweeted this morning. “We had very substantive negotiations with Kim Jong Un – we know what they want, and they know what we must have. The relationship is very good; let’s see what happens!”

I admit I was happy to read the tweet. It’s always good to know that the President is somehow calm. Trump’s tweets are like his heartbeat, and when the pulse is fast, there’s a high chance of things going bad.

The first tweet of the president after his return from Vietnam was a rarity: one of the good intentions. I do not remember a similar moment since he entered the White House. Asia must have done well by Donald Trump to receive such praise. Is it because of the few hours he spent on the ground, mostly flying on the presidential palace, Air Force One? Or is it the effect of perfected Asian hospitality that soothed Trump’s ego?

Let me extend this magic moment further, by confirming the president’s judgment on the outcome of the talks in Hanoi. The president said that his talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, were substantial and good. Without knowing all the details, while checking all available sources, I agree that the outcome of the meeting in Hanoi is not bad. At least relative to the disasters that might have been. At least nothing dramatic happened.

Last year’s first meeting between the two leaders, in Singapore, concluded a long crescendo of nonsensical threats, insults and muscle flexing from both sides. The purpose of the meeting was to stop the rambling irrationalities that could potentially lead to a nuclear disaster. OK maybe Donald J. Trump had, himself, ginned up the tensions. But before the handshake in Singapore, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump acted like agents provocateurs. The handshake replaced nuclear tests and military threats with the words of political trade. It gave Kim visibility and international breakthrough, while Trump branded himself as the great negotiator, capable of taming even the most ferocious beasts. North Korea was canceled from the list of rogue states, ceasing to present an immediate danger. But the agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea was nothing but a coded message between two dictators, a commitment to the further exploration of a potential relationship.

They both had domestic reasons for refreshing the talks. But for me — and the world — their suspect motivations may be less important than the result. As for the timing of the second meeting, Trump had pushed for the summit, “telling wary aides that his personal chemistry with North Korea’s young and reclusive leader outweighed any need for detailed, staff-level talks to iron out differences before either head of state set foot in Hanoi,” according to the AP. Kim Jong Un,  South Korean sources argued, needed a summit badly, too. This time, the U.S. wanted to arrive at the summit better prepared. The prep team included freshly nominated special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the hawkish National Security Adviser. While Biegun had been leading the preparatory effort, the negotiators had intentionally left some of the most contentious issues unresolved.

“We were hoping we could take another big swing when the two leaders got together,” Pompeo said to reporters as he flew from Vietnam to the Philippines after the summit collapsed. “We did. We made some progress. But we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped we would have gotten.” It is not clear exactly what that ‘progress’ was, and Pompeo didn’t clarify.

Some of the reporters on the ground, however, thought that Biegun was pushing for more concessions to the Koreans, while Bolton and Pompeo thought it too high a risk if the President appeared too eager to achieve something. There might’ve been some deal if not for Bolton, who blocked the agreement by elevating the American requests, according to a Newsweek exclusive. According to the former South Korean Unification Minister, Jeong Se-hyun, the talks collapsed after a last-minute stipulation proposed by Bolton that would mandate North Korea not only report on its nuclear weapons but its chemical and biological stockpiles too.

Newsweek added:  

It was at that point that North Korea raised the stakes to include sanctions relief, a deal breaker for Trump. The president would go on to say that the North Koreans “wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety,” but in an extremely rare press conference organized at midnight Hanoi time—noon in Washington—North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contended that he and his compatriots called for the removal of “partial U.N. sanctions,” specifical sections of five resolutions that “impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people,” according to a translation by North Korea News.

End of story? Not at all, to my mind. Whatever the details and truth about what happened in that negotiation room, it is evident that such an involved meeting cannot be prepared on such short notice. Trump and Kim did not have the time nor the capacity to forge a mutually acceptable nuclear compromise within the few hours they had at their disposal in Hanoi.

Were Trump and Kim out-maneuvered by their staffs, or had they merely realized that the issues on the table are of such complexity that they can not be resolved without serious preparation? South Korean sources, NK News among them, claim that the talks were interrupted because the U.S. did not commit to stopping joint military exercises with South Korea. On the other hand, both sides of Korea hoped for an agreement that would officially end the war between the two Koreas by turning the temporary, six-decade truce into a stable peace agreement sponsored by the U.S.

Would it be better if the two sides had signed something? Just anything? I doubt it, and if it’s true that the negotiations will continue, no damage has been done. There is no road map for further talks, but the point is that so far neither side intends to reopen hostilities, and the North Koreans are committed to maintaining suspension of the nuclear tests. For how long?

There is, however, a new dimension to the bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea. One of the main sponsors of the talks was South Korea. President Moon Jae-in was deeply involved in facilitating the talks, hoping for denuclearization, economic integration between North and South Korea, and a new order of peace and security in Northeast Asia. Has Seoul been pushing too far? Is it too optimistic about what’s achievable? Has Moon, after nothing came out of Hanoi, lost his legitimacy as the go-between of Washington and Pyongyang? Has this new situation given more leverage to China or even Japan?

The U.S. media called the trip a “disaster,” but that’s a too strong word. It was an illusion to expect that Trump would return home with a major agreement, a warranty that North Korea will start the process of total denuclearisation. That will never happen.

Trump has devalued himself and his advisors with his compulsive lies, making everything he does seem farcical even when it might contain a seed of logic. Upon his return from Hanoi, the president seemed to understand just how monumental an ambition dismantling all the nuclear sites in North Korea is.  

But then again, it might have all been an outgrowth of the president’s focus on branding and political theater. According to some sources, the Hanoi summit was President Trump’s pitch for a Nobel Prize. As the U.S. elections are approaching and the investigations into the Trump Organization become more concrete, this president needs every point in his favor. But he could not stop Michael Cohen, who testified damningly before Congress while Trump was in Hanoi. It is possible that President Trump came home quickly simply because he was concentrating on ways to deal with the looming crisis in Washington D.C. Perhaps this is a good thing.

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