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Below is a recent conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on last week's Hanoi Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Did Trump fail, reports widely indicate? Why were Kim and Trump unable to agree to a nuclear deal? What are some takeaway lessons from the meeting? Brad and Yohanes answer those and more questions/puzzles below.
BN: Here in the US, there's been almost universal criticism of Trump's failure to secure a deal--any kind of a deal--in Hanoi with Kim. The ultimate self-proclaimed dealmaker was unable to finalize a nuclear deal with Kim. To use Ben Rhodes's term, "The Blob" has spoken. The easy response is to say that The Blob extremely dislikes Trump, so their unfavorable reviews of the Hanoi summit aren't really a surprise. I suppose, though, let's dig a little deeper. The pre-summit worry—almost across the board, on the right and left, among academics and policy analysts—was that Trump would give Kim a boatload of concessions in exchange for very little in return from Kim. In fact, that was the rumor the day before the summit ended. But Trump didn't make these concessions. In fact, Trump didn't make any immediate concessions--at least, none beyond the actual meeting with Kim (which does confer legitimacy to Kim, DPRK). Yes, days after the fact, Trump did move to scrap large-scale South Korea-US exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale and virtual ones. But even here, it’s questionable whether this was an outright concession by Trump or something that was motivating by his cost-cutting, government waste obsession.
It's clear, then, that this was a summit that Trump couldn't win, no matter what he did. Hence, the story isn't just The Blob's dislike for Trump, it's that members of The Blob (including prominent academics, serious, distinguished people) have put forward unreasonable and contradictory positions to buttress their claims that Trump failed. That's my first take on Trump-Kim II.
YS: I agree with you totally. The only thing that I will blame Trump is his over-euphoria over the summits: Trump thought that he would be successful due to his charm offensives. He already asked Abe to nominate him for the Nobel. This mirrors what Bill Clinton did in the last year of his presidency when he wanted a Nobel. Clinton pushed both Arafat and Barak in negotiations. Arafat realized that, so he refused to budge, forcing Barak to give all the concessions, until in the end, when Barak simply gave up.
And of course, the DPRK is well known for shifting the goalpost. Just ask Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And Trump's desperation for the Nobel was playing into their hands. But at the same time, was it a disaster? No, I don't see much fallout from the “failure” of both Singapore and Hanoi summits. China will still help the DPRK regardless of whether the summits have been successful or not, simply because Beijing doesn’t want to see the north collapse and refugees streaming across the border. Russia will keep helping DPRK for the sake of putting the US on the edge. In short, nothing’s new.
As I noted a couple years ago, there is no way the DPRK will give up its nukes because it is a crucial part of the regime’s legitimacy, what makes KJU thinks he can sleep well at night, and giving them is a sign of weakness. Since a lot of people think Trump is a serial liar, I will take what Pompeo, who is still trusted, said, that the DPRK asked for full sanctions to be lifted. And this is similar with all previous negotiating tactics by the north: demand complete sanctions relief, get all the benefits, and then proceed not to do what they promised—because there is no way the Kim regime will give up its nukes.
BN: I blame Trump for short-circuiting the diplomatic process. He stepped in at the beginning, once Kim made the offer to meet via South Korea, and believed that fully engaged diplomacy involving teams from both the US and DPRK wasn't needed. He believed his own hype about his dealmaking skills; he could solve the nuclear crisis singlehandedly. Which meant that he sidelined the experts and negotiators from the start. And that's become an acute problem post-Singapore, as you correctly noted, because of Trump's enthusiastic embrace of Kim. The North Koreans believe Trump's so inexperienced and so politically invested—so eager to win a Nobel, as you point out—in the negotiations with Kim that they believe they can woo Trump, sucker Trump. They don't want anything to do with American negotiators like Pompeo and Biegun; they've postponed meetings, stalled talks, etc. And that's led to scant diplomatic progress the since Singapore. As a result, Trump walked into the Hanoi summit with little agreed upon, a very unusual circumstance for a bilateral meeting between world leaders. It's for that reason I didn't expect much at all to come out the Hanoi talks.
That said, it's hardly a disaster. Trump, to my surprise, used careful language to describe the talks and Kim. Similarly, DPRK state media offered a cheerful take on the summit. Even China's state media put forward an optimistic view on Hanoi. All are good signs. As Trump pointed out, neither side stormed out of Hanoi, and both seemed to have departed on good terms. The downside, of course, is that there are no further talks planned as of now, and who knows will when they’ll resume.
YS: At the same time, we have to ask whether this will mean more intransigence from Trump–he does not take humiliation lightly as we all know—or less belligerence from Kim, since he finally knows that even Trump has his limits. If the failure of Hanoi means that both sides will have a more realistic estimate for each other, I'd chalk this up as just a minor bump in the road—and as you noted, everyone involved in the talks is careful not to torpedo them. On the other hand, if the next meeting is a disaster, if there are no further meetings anytime soon, I think North Korea will again turn in a bellicose direction. At the same time, if it’s apparent that Trump is going to lose the 2020 election, or if the investigations place his presidency in jeopardy, then if I were North Korea, I'd try to get the best deal from Trump while I can. There won't be any US president who is more sympathetic to North Korea.
BN: Exactly. You've led me to another point I wanted to make here: while Trump has incentives to seal a deal with North Korea over the status of its nuclear program, Kim also has incentives to seal a deal with the US. Put simply, as you just mentioned, it's unlikely that Trump's successors will be anywhere near as friendly and cozy with Kim, and as eager to earn a political "win" on the DPRK issue. In fact, it's likely that Trump's successors—especially his immediate successor—will take a much tougher stance on North Korea's nukes, human rights abuses, the Kim regime, and so on. Kim has to realize this. Hence, he's got less than two years to finalize a nuclear deal that allows him to significantly loosen the economic noose around his nation. If he doesn't beat the clock, he'll take a big gamble that Trump wins another term or that the diplomatic momentum will carry over to a post-Trump administration. That’s a very risky bet.
I suspect Trump's successor will be inclined to uphold any deal he makes with Kim, as long as Kim abides by the terms of it, but not so eager to reach an agreement if one isn't clinched by the time they enter office. For example, a Democratic president in 2021 will face strong pressure to show his/her toughness, distance the US from global tyrants, prioritize human rights, and, more generally, junk most of Trump's of foreign policy platform.
BN: Lastly, what do you make of Trump's comments on the Otto Warmbier incident? In my view, taken in isolation, it's somewhat understandable. Trump's in the middle of negotiations with Kim, and he doesn't want to do/say anything that might sabotage current/future talks. That led him to pull his punches on Kim. That said, however, a full-throated defense of Kim—that Kim didn't know about Warmbier's condition, how he become ill/injured, etc.—is off-putting, completely tone deaf, and highly unlikely. And of course, it's difficult to see Trump's comments regarding the Warmbier tragedy in isolation. Indeed, when we combine these comments with his lavish embrace of Kim over the last year, his defense of MBS, his praise for Xi Jinping, and his obsequiousness for Putin, it sure looks like Trump has an affinity for many of the world's brutal strongmen.
YS: I agree. Trump wanted to show Kim that he was willing to bend backward for the sake of negotiations. But I agree: that was a terrible Q&A performance. Doesn't look good at all.
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