A Closer Look at the Hanoi Summit

SONYA HU: The North Korean nuclear weapons program has posed an existential threat to the United States and the overall international community for over half a century. However, just as U.S.-North Korean negotiations appeared to be on the cusp of a breakthrough, the world was again disappointed by diplomatic failures, surging signs of North Korean aggression, and the Kim regime’s continued disregard for international law. Recent examples of spiraling relations abound, with satellite images of North Korea’s efforts to rebuild the Sohae missile testing site surfacing on March 6 and a 400-page report released on March 11 by the United Nation’s Panel of Experts on North Korea reporting that Pyongyang has continued its gross violation of UN sanctions by exporting oil and coal and by selling arms across the Middle East.

These two events are particularly concerning, as they come in the wake of the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam from February 27-28, 2019.

However, while the failure of the Hanoi summit was deeply disappointing, it should come as no surprise. The two countries failed to make even marginal concessions, instead pushing for highly incompatible demands that effectively eliminated the possibility of an agreement.

The United States maintained the demand that it has made — and the North has rejected — for nearly a quarter century: that North Korea unilaterally surrender its entire nuclear weapons program, old and new, in return for U.S. sanction relief. Unsurprisingly, considering Kim Jong-Un’s belief that the North’s nuclear capabilities are imperative for the survival of the Kim regime, Pyongyang was again less than enthusiastic about this proposal.

The North Korean proposition was similarly unattractive to the United States. Kim requested that the United States end the sanctions it enacted in 2016 in return for the closing of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the heart of the North Korean nuclear program. However, this modest proposal had already been rejected by American negotiators during the working-level discussions that took place in Hanoi before Trump and Kim arrived.

Considering these proposals, it is regrettably unsurprising that negotiations broke down — the United States and North Korea’s incompatible demands doomed the summit to fail before it even began.

Fortunately, while the failure of the Hanoi summit to produce any agreement was disheartening, President Trump’s decision to walk away was ultimately in the United States’ best interest. Succumbing to Kim’s requests would jeopardize the United States’ national security interests and alliance relationships in the region. In the end, “deciding against a deal at this time is better than accepting a bad deal.”

However, while walking away was the right decision, the United States cannot claim that it is entirely without fault for the Hanoi summit’s outcome. The United States must recognize that it cannot proceed in its negotiations without making any sort of concessions. It would be a waste of time and ultimately counterproductive to continue to push for a deal that is so clearly outside of the Pyongyang’s win-set without leaving any room for compromise.

The United States must understand that so long as Kim views nuclear weapons as necessary for regime survival, North Korea will never come to view complete denuclearization as acceptable. The surrender of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear program is simply too high a risk and too large a concession for North Korea to make, especially without sufficient guarantees of ample U.S. reciprocity.

Considering this reality, it is imperative that the United States — and North Korea — be realistic moving forward. Chung In-Moon, a distinguished university professor at Yonsei University and the special adviser for foreign affairs and national security to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, stated that “North Korea is highly unlikely to accept the all-or-nothing deal that the Trump administration proposed in Hanoi. If Washington continues to balk at an incremental approach, an exit from the current stalemate seems inconceivable.”

The United States must be open to more moderate deals, as even partial denuclearization would be a major step in the right direction. A continued failure to recognize reality and acknowledge the demands, needs, and dynamics of the other side will doom any future negotiations.

For the sake of international security and stability, the United States must realize that the “art of the deal” requires a willingness to compromise and an understanding of who sits on the other side of the negotiating table.

—Sonya Hu

Sina Nemazi