In failed Hanoi summit, a silver lining: The drama phase is over

Why We Wrote This

Leader-to-leader summitry offers tantalizing prospects of dramatic progress, but failure can be costly. When that happens, experts agree, a return to diplomatic ‘spade work’ is required.

Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose before their meeting during the second US-North Korea summit at the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27.

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President Trump is generally winning praise among foreign-policy experts and a bipartisan collection of US leaders for balking at North Korea’s demands at the Hanoi summit. But at the same time, the abrupt conclusion without any deal underscores the reality that diplomatic breakthroughs are hard to secure.

“This is what can happen when a president is eager for doing summits quickly,” says Victor Cha, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s not enough spade work that’s done at the working level.” Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un were unable to accept each other’s terms. The two sides failed to agree even on a definition of “denuclearization.”

But for some analysts, the Hanoi summit was a positive, in that it marked the end of the high-drama phase of diplomacy and the start of the real work. “It was successful in shedding clarity and realism on this very complicated issue,” says Katharine Moon, an expert in the US-Korea alliance at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Hanoi, she says, was “a start rather than a debacle. Diplomacy will continue.”

The courtship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un that hit a snag in Hanoi Thursday confirms a truth about world affairs: Showy symbolism is easy, diplomacy is hard.

Mr. Trump is generally winning praise among foreign-policy experts and a bipartisan collection of US leaders for balking at North Korea’s demands for quick and substantial sanctions relief in exchange for little in the way of denuclearization.

That Hanoi was not a repeat of Singapore, the two leaders’ first summit last May, where Mr. Kim achieved optics parity with the US president while giving very little, assuaged many worried at the prospect of a second symbolic win for the North.

But at the same time, the abrupt conclusion of the Hanoi summit without any deal underscores the reality that diplomatic breakthroughs – especially on the scale of denuclearizing a historical adversary and removing the threat it poses to the world – are much harder to secure than a feel-good summit.

“This is what can happen when a president is eager for doing summits quickly,” says Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s not enough spade work that’s done at the working level” and what remains is “the hope that the two leaders can overcome any obstacles at the working level.”

At Hanoi, fresh demands

Despite the bonhomie between a US president and a brutal, nuclear-armed dictator that had been on display in Singapore, the two leaders were unable in Hanoi to accept each other’s terms for a deal – and apparently even surprised each other with fresh demands.

The White House says North Korea wanted full sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling its main (but not by any means its only) nuclear facility at Yongbyon. North Korean officials disputed that, saying Kim sought relief from the most recent sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. A senior State Department official said the North also rejected the US demand for a complete freeze on its weapons program.

The two sides failed to agree even on a definition of “denuclearization,” while the North continued to balk at furnishing a complete declaration of its nuclear facilities and weapons sites – a demand nuclear-policy experts say has to be at the foundation of any denuclearization deal.

While there was widespread relief that the president didn’t “take a bad deal,” Dr. Cha says, concern remains that failure at the summit level is harder to overcome than when it’s just part of the “spade work” of working-level diplomacy.

“When diplomacy at the leadership level fails, there’s not really a whole lot of rope after that,” he says.

What must follow the failed summitry is a return to the basics, some Asia and nuclear experts say.

“Real diplomacy is the only way to effectively address the threat from North Korea” and to get to where “the two sides are ready to announce an agreement that includes concrete, verifiable concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program,” says Michael Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “Let the real negotiators from both sides get to work,” adds Mr. Fuchs, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “Until then, no more reality TV summitry.”

Start of the real work

Indeed, for some analysts, the Hanoi summit was a positive, in that it marked the end of the high-drama phase of diplomacy and the start of the real work.

“It was successful in shedding clarity and realism on this very complicated issue for the three main countries involved – the United States, North Korea, and South Korea,” says Katharine Moon, a professor of Asian studies and expert in the US-Korea alliance at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

The summit was “clear recognition that the charm offensive has no place in this, and the working-level people have to be in charge,” she says. Recognition of that leads Professor Moon to declare Hanoi “a start rather than a debacle. Diplomacy will continue.”

Some supporters of Trump’s signature style of diplomacy say the president knows exactly what he is doing – that he learned from decades of business deal-making that you sometimes walk away to eventually get to a deal you can accept.

Sources close to the White House say Trump’s national-security advisers are convinced Kim desperately wants sanctions relief to keep his regime afloat. Now that Kim knows Trump won’t go for just any deal, they add, the North Koreans will get serious about negotiations.

That may be, but others say Trump’s Singapore approach of granting Kim substantial concessions for little in return – followed by a second summit without even an interim deal – has left him “boxed in” by a situation favorable to North Korea.

Indeed, the Defense Department is preparing to announce that the US will no longer hold the large-scale military exercises it has conducted each spring with South Korea, according to reports from the Pentagon Friday. 

‘Freeze for freeze’

“In some ways we are worse off than we were before because what we’re left with now, essentially, is … a situation where the North Koreans have stopped nuclear-missile and nuclear-weapons testing – a freeze – and we the United States have frozen our military exercises” with South Korea, says Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at CSIS and an Asia diplomat in administrations of both parties.

That’s essentially the “freeze for freeze” that China and Russia proposed to the US in 2017 and which the Trump administration rejected at the time as “absolutely unacceptable and insulting,” Dr. Green says.

The problem is that even with its testing freeze, North Korea will be advancing its weapons and missile programs and building up its stockpile of fissile materials for building even more nuclear weapons. Moreover, if Trump does decide to break out of the “box” he’s in and resume military exercises with South Korea, Green says, he will be “blamed” for antagonizing the North and potentially scuttling diplomacy.

Wellesley’s Moon says if there was any big loser out of Hanoi, it was South Korea. She notes that the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, invested heavily in diplomacy with the North to encourage getting a deal out of Hanoi. With no deal in sight, Mr. Moon will have to reassess his economic engagement with the North, she says.

And beyond that, the Wellesley professor says that, despite the positive turn of actually getting diplomats in charge of the US-North Korea diplomacy, the Trump administration now faces a ticking clock that doesn’t leave unlimited time for hard diplomacy.

“Trump doesn’t have a whole lot of time, with 2020 coming up,” Moon says. “If he’s going to meet Kim again and aim for a deal, it can be at the latest next fall or winter.

“After that,” she adds, the presidential campaign will mean “he probably can’t be focused on a foreign policy issue, even this one.”

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