The promising romance between President Trump and Chairman Kim — falling in love in 2018 — seems to have experienced a flameout at the end of the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi last week. After getting Chairman Kim to agree to denuclearization last year, President Trump seemed quite confident in reaching another productive deal. A declaration ending the Korean War, test site dismantlements, sanction relaxation, a roadmap for denuclearization – each were in the cards for the second national leader-to-leader meeting in Hanoi. Instead, the talks ended without an agreement. Even if he did so as a product of misread signals, President Trump was right to walk away. But such a decision has its costs.
Given the domestic role and status symbolism of nuclear weapons, in addition to the potential deterrence they offer, Chairman Kim will not agree to give up his arsenal. Kim’s ultimate goal is regime survival, and the weapons grant Chairman Kim a degree of legitimacy. All other countries with nuclear weapons today have significant prestige, influence, and respect globally. In Chairman Kim’s worldview, nuclear weapons elevate the status of the governments who have them. Nuclear weapons are also a means of placating and controlling the DPRK military, symbolizing songun — the Kim regime’s “military-first” governance philosophy. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats assessed total North Korean (DPRK) denuclearization was unlikely, and yet this goal was the very outcome President Trump and his team sought at the summit.
Chairman Kim ultimately asked for sanctions relief, offering to dismantle the Yongbyon reactor at the heart of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. Mr. Ri, a spokesperson for the DPRK asserted they requested partial sanctions relief, but President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo claimed the North Koreans requested full relief. The reactor itself was not producing plutonium, and dismantling it did nothing to address missile development; taking this deal would not achieve the complete denuclearization President Trump sought, and may have made him look like he made a bad deal. The president instead requested North Korea trade all its nuclear weapons, material, and facilities for an end to the American-led sanctions.
Chairman Kim has many recent examples justifying his wariness of bilaterally agreeing to anything proposed by the United States that is substantially pointed toward denuclearization. Examples include President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran Deal”). Perhaps this reasoning is what Chairman Kim was alluding to when he argued too little trust existed between him and President Trump for such an agreement.
The DPRK mission to the UN announced a food shortfall two weeks ago, calling on the international community to provide aid. Kim needs food aid for his regime to survive, and this statement at the UN clearly signified that Kim desired food aid as a concession from the US. This echoes Kim Jong-un’s father’s past offers to limit the nation’s weapons program in return for aid. While exchanging food aid for promises — deals made by past presidents — is a bad deal, President Trump’s negotiating team may have missed how much Chairman Kim direly needed the food aid, and failed to use this as key leverage at the Hanoi summit.
President Trump may have also undercut his own negotiating position. “As long as there is no testing, we’re happy,” President Trump publicly said of his goals for the summit just days before the meeting. In articulating the minimum acceptable outcome for any potential deal, President Trump may have emboldened his North Korean counterpart to push for further concessions, allowing them to underestimate how committed President Trump was to complete denuclearization — even if it meant no deal.
Agreeing to full or even partial sanctions relief may have been too much for President Trump to offer as sanctions are still the primary means the U.S. uses to punish North Korea’s weapons programs. Given the deadlock reached by negotiating teams prior to the summit and crossed signals on negotiating stances, President Trump put himself in a position out of which the only right move was to walk away.
There are always consequences for inaction, and in this case, concessions were made despite the absence of a formal deal.
In the days following the summit, the U.S. cancelled U.S.-South Korea military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, replacing them with future battalion-sized drills. These exercises, often conducted simultaneously, anger the DPRK. These exercises are tools to strengthen the negotiating positions for Department of State and other U.S. government officials negotiating with their North Korean counterparts, or are temporarily suspended to reduce tensions as a gesture of good faith in the runup to negotiations. The virtual simulation-based Key Resolve and field exercise Foal Eagle also regularly test joint interoperability and readiness between American and South Korean forces, and are critical in assessing capabilities, communications, planning, and areas for improvement.
This is a concession to the North Koreans on behalf of the U.S. The president tweeted on Saturday that cancelling drills saves the U.S. money that is not reimbursed, and that reducing tensions with North Korea is ideal. The reality is that the U.S. and South Korea just reached a new deal for funding American troops in the Peninsula with South Korea contributing $890m annually, a 15-percent increase from 2018 no less. Undercutting readiness may also embolden Chairman Kim, and cancelling drills gives up a potential bargaining chip in return for nothing. Such concessions are also likely to shake South Korean and Japanese confidence in U.S. security guarantees and joint readiness.
Chairman Kim faces a famine that must be addressed, and he will likely do so with Russian and Chinese assistance. China has recently relaxed its sanctions on the DPRK, continuing a long-held pattern of using sanctions enforcement as leverage over the Kim regime. Russia, whose telecom firms provide internet for the DPRK, and have offered to build a nuclear reactor in North Korea, has repeatedly circumscribed sanctions on North Korea as well. Both China and Russia may use this situation to their advantage to influence the Kim regime further in the near future.
China may have an indirect role in the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit. China’s President Xi Jinping hosted Chairman Kim for talks in January. The content of their talks remains a mystery, but Chairman Kim was confident in pressing President Trump for sanctions relief at the Hanoi summit. It is entirely possible Chairman Kim was prepared to make such bold requests because he was given assurances from President Xi beforehand, muting the risk of a no-deal outcome. In doing so, President Xi may have forced President Trump into a position where he feels he needs a new and concrete outcome in the upcoming trade negotiations between the U.S. and China — a deal for which he may make more concessions than he had originally planned.
A no-deal outcome is better than a bad deal. In walking away from a poorly prepared negotiation attempt, President Trump made the right call for the summit itself, but may have put himself in a more vulnerable position regionally. President Trump says he trusts Chairman Kim to not conduct further tests, but with cancelled military exercises, no dismantlement whatsoever, and maintenance of further secret missile sites, the ball is in Chairman Kim’s court. He may very well decide to test again — either a small missile or nuclear warhead test — to ratchet up regional tensions to bring President Trump back to the negotiating table, or simply to see how much he can get away with in light of the latest summit. As for President Trump, up next are negotiations with China’s Xi Jinping on the trade war and sanctions; and President Trump may be desperate for a deal he can claim as a foreign policy win.