Trump-Kim Summit Breakdown Renews Doubts North Korea Will Disarm

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump flew halfway around the world for his hastily arranged second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, betting that his personal diplomacy could overcome sticking points both sides have known about for years.

Now he’s coming home empty-handed.

The collapse of talks in Hanoi exposed just how far apart the adversaries are, even after two face-to-face meetings. Kim refused to walk away from his nuclear program -- something the regime has resisted for decades. Instead, he offered up one aging nuclear facility but refused to give up his arsenal and other infrastructure -- while asking the U.S. to drop all of its sanctions.

Even Trump, who’s been eager for a deal, knew he couldn’t go that far.

Trump-Kim Summit Breakdown Renews Doubts North Korea Will Disarm

“It was about the sanctions -- basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters at a news conference Thursday in Hanoi after talks were abruptly cut short. “There is a gap. We have to have sanctions and he wants to denuke, but he wants to do areas that are less important than we want.”

The president’s move will be a relief to arms control experts worried that Trump was willing to take a bad deal over no agreement. He arrived in Vietnam under pressure to come away with more than the largely symbolic handshakes and vaguely worded joint statement of his first summit in Singapore eight months ago.

But the path forward now is murky. While Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo pledged to continue negotiations, it’s unclear how North Korea will react to the president walking away from the bargaining table. And it casts fresh doubt on his strategy of relying on top-down talks with the North Korean leader to extract concessions.

“In a normal process these agreements are supposed to be pre-baked by negotiating teams and then merely warmed-up and served to the public by leaders for a photo-op,” said Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a human rights group that helps North Korean refugees.

Despite North Korea arguably being at the top of Trump’s list of foreign policy priorities, he gave his senior negotiator, State Department envoy Stephen Biegun, only a few weeks to try to hammer out details of an accord that had eluded successive U.S. administrations for decades.

‘Negotiating 101’

Among the possible options for agreement were decisions to open liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, provide a full inventory of North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles or open weapons facilities to international inspectors. But none of that materialized, with the the White House scratching a pre-advertised "signing ceremony” for the two leaders as the talks unraveled.

Trump’s willingness to go home without an accord was the right move, according to Joel Wit, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center who helped negotiate an earlier accord with Pyongyang.

Trump-Kim Summit Breakdown Renews Doubts North Korea Will Disarm

“This is negotiating 101,” Wit said. “He decided to up the ante and put more pressure on Pyongyang to get a better deal.”

While Biegun has argued that any agreement could take a long time, the breakdown was also a brutal example of the dangers inherent in Trump’s decision-by-instinct, top-down approach.

Trump and Pompeo repeatedly said they had been close to an agreement, but just couldn’t get there this time. Grabbing what he has long called one of his signature achievements in reaching out to North Korea, Trump said Kim had assured him that a freeze in testing ballistic missiles and nuclear devices would continue.

Yet Trump also said, while sitting next to Kim, that there’s “no rush” to reach a broader deal. That appeared to wash away any sense of urgency that Kim agree to concrete steps toward denuclearization.

The question now is what comes next. Pompeo insisted negotiations would continue, though he added that it might be a “little while” before that happens.

“We’ll each need to regroup a little bit,” the top U.S. diplomat told reporters on his plane en route to Manila from Hanoi. “Look, there has to be a reason for the conversations. There has to be a theory of the case about how to move forward. I’m confident that there is one.”

Military Exercises

Kim goes home without a deal, too, but he does so after again winning legitimacy on the world stage, having gone toe-to-toe with an American president for the second time. Trump even said military exercises with South Korea, long a source of frustration for Pyongyang, would remain suspended, in part due to their “$100 million” price tag.

Despite the abrupt end, there were extraordinary moments during the two-day summit that suggested the two sides are becoming more at ease. In a remarkable first, Kim answered questions from journalists at the start of his meeting with Trump. Asked if he was ready to denuclearize, Kim responded that he wouldn’t have been in Hanoi if he wasn’t.

2020 Election Looms

Time for that to happen under Trump’s watch is getting shorter by the day. The 2020 election is about 20 months away, and North Korea will almost certainly slow-walk any talks as that date approaches and it gauges whether Trump will win a second term or be replaced by a Democrat who may take a tougher approach.

As in past summits, Trump’s meetings with Kim were overshadowed by events back home. This time it was congressional testimony by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, who called the president a “con man’’ and a “cheat.” That prompted the president to fire back that the man who once had an office next to his in Trump Tower was “lying in order to reduce his prison time.” At the news conference Trump criticized the fact that the hearing took place while he was trying to negotiate with North Korea.

‘Quite a Character’

Before heading to Hanoi’s airport, Trump and Pompeo put their best spin on the talks, saying they had made progress. As he often does, Trump spoke in glowing terms of the North Korean leader and the relationship they’ve established.

“Kim Jong Un is quite a guy and quite a character,” the president said. “There’s tremendous potential in North Korea and I think he’s going to lead it to a very important thing economically. We just like each other.”

Analysts watching from the sidelines dispensed with the personal praise, but conceded that a breakdown was better than a bad deal.

Michael Green, a former Asia director for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he was worried Trump might agree to pull some of the 30,000 U.S. troops from South Korea as a concession to Kim. That didn’t happen.

“It could have been much worse," Green said.

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