North Korea was never going to unilaterally disarm
It should come as no surprise that the Hanoi summit between the United States and North Korea ended in failure. The two countries’ incompatible demands made reaching a new agreement—not just on North Korea’s nuclear program but on anything—almost impossible. Washington called on Pyongyang to unilaterally surrender its entire nuclear weapons program before it would make any concessions. Despite intial reports that the United States was ready to move negotiations forward by first seeking a partial freeze on production of fissile material, it instead went after the whole program—everything old and new—in one swing. Pyongyang unsurprisingly refused, demanding that Washington lift almost all sanctions before it would discuss any further “denuclearization steps.” The United States considered that too high a price for anything short of Pyongyang’s total unilateral disarmament, and talks collapsed. The gulf between U.S. and North Korean demands—not to mention a lack of agreement on what terms as central as “denuclearization” or “corresponding measures” actually meant—had been deftly papered over in the months since the historic first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June. But the bill finally came due in Hanoi.
WHAT WENT WRONG
At an unusual press conference after the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained Pyongyang’s views of what went wrong. According to Ri, Kim asked for the repeal of specific clauses in five UN Security Council sanction resolutions passed in 2016 and 2017 that North Korea saw as pressuring its “civilian” economy. That was a big ask: these sanctions cover sources of revenue worth billions of dollars to the North Korean regime, including petroleum, iron, coal, and even overseas labor. Given the Trump administration’s belief that it was precisely its “maximum pressure” campaign—and not Kim’s attainment of a sufficiently broad and complete nuclear deterrent—that brought North Korea to the negotiating table, sanctions relief was always going to be a major concession.
Ri’s press conference marked the first time Pyongyang provided the international community with a specific definition of what it had euphemistically termed “corresponding measures” in a range of public statements—most prominently in the September 19, 2018, Pyongyang Declaration, signed on day two of the Inter-Korean Summit Meeting. That statement made clear that additional denuclearization steps, “such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon,” would come only once those “corresponding measures” were taken. In effect, North Korea believed that because it had already dismantled its main nuclear test site, offered up a unilateral moratorium on the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and dismantled a missile engine test stand associated with ICBMs, it was now Washington’s turn to make concessions.
Many analysts didn’t fully grasp how central comprehensive sanctions relief was to North Korea in these negotiations, focusing instead on a range of other concessions that Pyongyang might have sought in Hanoi. Yet a declaration to end the Korean War, the opening of a liaison office, and even modifications to U.S.–South Korean joint exercises—although all valuable to Pyongyang in their own way—were not at the core of the “corresponding measures” that Kim sought up front. When he made his demands clear at last week’s summit, the U.S. side decided that the price was too steep. A senior State Department official said as much after the summit, noting that “to give many, many billions of dollars in sanctions relief would in effect put us in a position of subsidizing the ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea.” That view exposed a fundamental rigidity in the U.S. position. Short of a comprehensive deal that would exchange total sanctions relief for all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, any interim agreement could be rejected because it would subsidize the country’s programs. Failure in Hanoi was thus all but assured from the start.
But what North Korea was willing to put on the table was also far short of U.S. expectations. By Ri’s own telling, Pyongyang offered a formal moratorium on ICBMs and nuclear testing—effectively making more credible last year’s unilateral commitment. A moratorium would not be without value: it could limit North Korea’s progress in nuclear weapons and ballistic missile design while depriving the Korean People’s Army of opportunities to rehearse for a nuclear war with live launches. (North Korea conducted these sorts of exercises as recently as March 2017.)
Ri also noted that following the lifting of “partial” sanctions, Pyongyang would “permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area.” Ri’s statement might be interpreted to cover the five-megawatt gas-graphite reactor, the spent-fuel-reprocessing facility, and the gas centrifuge uranium enrichment halls at Yongbyon. Shutting down those facilities would cut off the lone known source of plutonium production in North Korea, slow the rate of highly enriched uranium accumulation (which would, however, continue at covert sites), and terminate one of North Korea’s few potential sources of tritium—a necessary ingredient for the high-yield thermonuclear weapons design Pyongyang is thought to have tested in September 2017.
Despite Pyongyang’s offer, shortly after the Hanoi summit U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said he considered shuttering Yongbyon only a “limited concession,” consisting of an “aging nuclear reactor and some percentage” of North Korea’s enrichment capacity. More concerning, Bolton doubled down on the United States’ hard-line position, suggesting that nothing short of “complete denuclearization—including [North Korea’s] ballistic missile program and its chemical and biological weapons programs” was sufficient to warrant sanctions relief.
Given that proposals to impose a testing moratorium and twice shutter facilities at Yongbyon had been previously litigated only to be subsequently violated, it is not surprising that this offer was insufficient for Washington. Despite U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun’s statement in January that Kim had committed “to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities,” including at a “complex of sites that extends beyond Yongbyon,” North Korea has not acknowledged the existence of any other sites, such as the suspected covert uranium enrichment facility at Kangson, let alone put them on the negotiating table. Ri hinted that the Yongbyon offer was the best that Pyongyang was willing to make “at the current stage.” He described it as the “first stage of the process”—which would continue after sanctions relief. This left the door open to talking about covert sites and other issues once a base-line level of trust had been established. North Korea has maintained this public position for months: the negotiations were a step-by-step process in which it believed that it had already taken the first steps, and now it was owed sanctions relief. The Trump administration, unsurprisingly, disagreed.
The United States was wise not to accept the basket of concessions Pyongyang requested on the sanctions front, but it should have been willing to state what sanctions it would remove in exchange for the facilities on offer at Yongbyon. North Korea’s proposal was likely divisible enough that the two sides might have reached at least the start of a phased process. The two sides could also have considered concessions other than Security Council resolutions relief, including project-specific exemptions related to inter-Korean initiatives that the South Korean government remains enthusiastic about. The result at Hanoi will leave in place limits on inter-Korean cooperation that are sure to frustrate South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is eager to move forward on joint inter-Korean projects.
Given the obvious early signs that no agreement would be reached, why did Trump even go to Hanoi and demand that Kim surrender his nuclear weapons, knowing that he wouldn’t do so? One plausible explanation is Trump’s hubris about his own negotiating power—that only he could convince Kim to relinquish the very capability that enabled the summits in the first place. Trump may also have overestimated the leverage U.S. sanctions gave him, even after China and Russia had let out all the air from the maximum pressure campaign since early last year by easing up on sanctions implementation with North Korea.
One can hardly blame Kim for being surprised at what must have seemed like Trump’s abrupt turnabout. For months, Trump had been heaping praise on him. Kim was taking steps that maintained the pretense of disarming and Trump had been playing along, pretending to believe him, even stating repeatedly that he was in “no rush” on denuclearization and seeming satisfied so long as there was no missile and nuclear testing. It seemed clear that Trump did not actually care whether Kim disarmed, which probably suited Kim just fine. So imagine Kim’s likely shock when he was subjected to the Hanoi holdup: instead of being asked to ratify the fiction of disarmament, he was being asked to hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom. In the postsummit briefing, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said, “Chairman Kim got the feeling that he didn’t understand the way Americans calculate. I have a feeling that Chairman Kim may have lost the will” to negotiate further.
Ultimately, Trump could neither charm nor bully Kim in Hanoi, and his promises of a vibrant future for North Korea as an “economic rocket” fell flat. Kim does not envision a future without his nuclear deterrent—and offers of economic liberalization may be not so much a promise of a secure future as a threat to Kim’s hold on power. Last year, North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan underscored that his country “never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, either.” North Korea can envision a future with sanctions, but it cannot envision a future without its nuclear weapons.
WHAT COMES NEXT
An optimistic view after Hanoi is that Trump’s willingness to walk away may give a jolt to the working-level diplomatic process that was on life support before the summit. Pyongyang had continually stalled this process in hopes of another one-on-one Trump-Kim summit, where it may have believed Trump might be willing to give major concessions directly to Kim. By walking away, Trump signaled there might be no more summits unless Pyongyang made an effort to bridge the negotiating gap. Kim’s bet that getting alone in a room with Trump would be a sure-fire way to win the concessions North Korea sought backfired. If both sides are still interested in a deal, the failure in Hanoi might provide a much-needed push to the working-level negotiators, since another leader-level summit that fails to produce a concrete agreement is probably out of the question.
A more pessimistic takeaway is that Hanoi’s failure could lead hard-liners in both countries to conclude that the gap between the two sides remains unbridgeable, setting Washington and Pyongyang on a renewed collision course. In the United States, hawks such as Bolton and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have long suspected the diplomatic process of being futile and have offered a lone alternative: disarming North Korea by force. And one cannot forget that Kim has domestic constituents as well and may face pressure from his own hard-liners for staking so much on his “epochal” relationship with Trump. This future would be worrying, because unlike in 2017, at this point there are few viable diplomatic off-ramps should the current process fail.
Yet for now, the process that began in Singapore last year remains in place. North Korean state media offered a positive report on Hanoi, emphasizing the continued rapport between Trump and Kim. What remains to be seen is if the United States will move toward a phased approach to denuclearization and recognize that the most urgent task for its Korean Peninsula policy is to reduce nuclear risks.
We wrote after the Singapore summit that pushing for unilateral and immediate North Korean disarmament is the wrong approach. The United States can maintain disarmament as a long-term goal, but the short-term goal must be to slow the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, manage the continuing threat from that arsenal through robust allied deterrence, and limit the risks of proliferation. Insisting, as Bolton did in the lead-up to Singapore, on what is essentially the “Libya model,” a rapid foreign-imposed disarmament of a state’s nuclear weapons program—but which North Korea takes to be a threat of regime change—ignores that Pyongyang, unlike Tripoli, has already acquired nuclear weapons and believes that its nuclear capability is what gives it its current position of strength. It is not going to unilaterally surrender them.
Indeed, North Korea’s attainment of an operational nuclear arsenal sets the current round of diplomacy apart from past talks. One hope in Pyongyang might be that Washington will come to accept North Korea’s nuclear status—especially as U.S. intelligence continues to watch Kim’s nuclear and ICBM arsenal grow unabated. For better or for worse, the process that began in Singapore did have the effect of conferring some legitimacy on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. Now it is up to both countries to continue this process and discover the terms under which the United States can coexist with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
If there is one lesson from Hanoi, it is to take North Korea’s words seriously. Kim had long signaled that he expected sanctions relief up front before taking any further steps toward denuclearization. He also made known that North Korea would not react well to demands to unilaterally disarm. In his 2019 New Year’s Day speech, Kim foreshadowed what might happen if Hanoi failed, stating: “If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world, and out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country.” If the United States continues to insist on unilateral disarmament, it may find out what that “new way” is, and it is unlikely to be pleasant.