- Reuters/Leah Millis
- President Donald Trump’s second meeting was a “failure,” experts say, and it’s linked to lack of preparation and surprising North Korea with “last minute” demands.
- Trump walked away from his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, earlier than expected and without a deal on denuclearization.
- “[Trump] failed to deliver what he claimed only he could deliver,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama.
- North Korea still has its nuclear arsenal and it’s unclear what happens moving forward.
- Some in the foreign policy community, however, say the summit went largely as expected and it’s positive that Trump left with sanctions still in place and a diplomatic route to denuclearization still open.
President Donald Trump’s second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, “clearly was a failure,” experts say, given the president walked away with the path still very unclear to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
It’s not clear what happens next as the dust is still settling from a summit cut short.
A North Korean official said Kim may have “lost the will” for future talks, as Washington and Pyongyang spar over the details of the meeting and why the two leaders cut them off.
Trump claimed North Korea wanted all economic sanctions on it to be lifted in exchange for shutting down its major nuclear facility, Yongbyon.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho said the country was willing to both dismantle Yongbyon and permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. What’s more, Ri said North Korea did not demand all sanctions be lifted but only asked for five our of 11 to be eased, contradicting Trump’s earlier assertions.
On top of this, Trump is being slammed by figures on both sides of the aisle for taking Kim’s word that he didn’t know about the maltreatment of Otto Warmbier, a US student who died shortly after being released from imprisonment in North Korea.
‘A failure for Trump’
“It clearly is a failure for Trump,” Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, told INSIDER.
“He’s been lauding his success. He’s been talking about how he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, about how he has this great relationship with Kim Jong Un. But there’s no question that the threat from North Korea – the number of weapons, the number of missiles – is greater today than when he took office,” Wolfsthal added. “[Trump] failed to deliver what he claimed only he could deliver.”
- Leah Millis/Reuters
Wolfsthal said part of the reason the talks collapsed seems to have been that Trump dropped new demands on North Korea at the “last minute” that were pushed for by National Security Adviser John Bolton and had not been discussed prior to the sit-down in Hanoi. Bolton apparently urged Trump to ask North Korea to reveal its holding of chemical and biological weapons or pledge to get rid of them.
“North Korea saw this as moving the goalposts,” Wolfsthal said, adding the Trump administration’s approach to this marked a “stark contrast” to how the Obama administration worked on diplomatic agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords.
“We never had to walk away from a deal at the last minute because we knew what we wanted and we actually included all of the decision makers in that process” before the president sat down in a room for negotiations.
“It’s clear that the lack of process, and the lack of cohesion in the Trump administration was one of the reasons the summit failed,” Wolfsthal added.
Other experts also seem to be in general agreement that the summit was a failure for Trump.
Victor Cha, who served on the National Security Council on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council as Director for Asia, in a Thursday op-ed for The New York Times said, “Having participated in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, I know what failure smells like. The truncated Hanoi summit, which concluded abruptly without an agreement between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, carried an awful stench.”
Cha, who was almost Trump’s ambassador to South Korea, added, “Not only did Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim fail to offer more empty promises, they even dispensed with signing a joint statement, canceled their planned ceremonial lunch, and skipped the joint news conference.”
‘Hopefully, the US will get another bite at the apple’
At the same time, experts say it’s good that Trump did not agree to a deal with bad terms and sound optimistic the negotiations can continue in the future, as the Trump administration claimed they would.
In his piece for the Times, Cha wrote, “Though the president never should have gotten himself into this position, he still probably did the right thing leaving Hanoi empty-handed. No deal is better than a bad deal.”
Wolfsthal said it’s true this specific meeting was a failure, but “that doesn’t mean the whole process is a failure.”
“I still think there’s hope for a moderate, interim deal,” Wolfsthal said. “Hopefully the US will get another bite at the apple.”
Similarly, Ian Bremmer, founder and president of the Eurasia Group, on Thursday tweeted, “Despite failure of Summit, far less threat of escalation around North Korea than before diplomacy began … Even if the US doesn’t get what it wants, this is progress.”
In a separate tweet, Bremmer said a large part of the problem was Trump “made North Korea negotiations all about himself and Kim” and it’s “almost impossible to come to useful agreement that way.”
‘Let’s not forget who Trump is, he’s a TV star playing the role of the president’
Wolfsthal seems to largely agree that it’s good the president didn’t sign a bad deal and gives Trump credit for getting Kim to consider diplomatic talks. But he also said a larger issue at play is the fact the president gets too caught up in the attention such meetings get while ignoring the substance of them.
“Let’s not forget who Trump is, he’s a TV star playing the role of the president,” Wolfsthal said. “Trump is the dog that caught the car. He doesn’t really know what to do now. He wants to drag out this process. He wants a third summit. He wants more ratings … Even if there are no results.”
“I think Trump gets credit for having brought Kim Jong Un to the table, but it’s only partial credit,” he added. “You’ve got to get the deal across the finish line.”
‘What have we lost here? The answer is nothing’
But not everyone in the foreign policy community agrees that the summit was a failure.
James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told INSIDER the summit largely played out “the way the US expected … I don’t think it was terribly surprising.”
Carafano said that North Korea’s pushback on what exactly was said at the meeting is being overblown. North Korea’s foreign minister said his country only requested relief from five out of 11 United Nations sanctions imposed against it that have hurt the rogue state’s economy.
But Carafano said the five North Korea pointed to were the “heart of the sanctions” and “giving them that five would’ve been a complete get-out-of-jail-free card.”
Immediately after the summit broke up, Trump told reporters North Korea requested the sanctions to be “lifted in their entirety,” but Carafano pushed against interpreting the president so literally.
“We should be used to this, this is very Trumpian. That’s the way Trump talks,” he said. “We know that very, very often [Trump] is not literal in his words.”
Any “serious person” would look at this and see North Korea was asking for the “crown jewels,” Carafano added.
In the end, Carafano said it was a “healthy outcome for both sides.”
“I actually thought the North Korean response was incredibly positive. They didn’t storm out and say ‘we’re going to start nuclear testing tomorrow,'” he added. “For the Americans I think it was an incredibly positive outcome. What have we lost here? The answer is nothing.”
Carafano said that with sanctions still in place and the diplomatic route to denuclearization still open, the US is in a good position moving forward.
In Carafano’s view, the assertion that “we weren’t prepared” or Trump “mismanaged this thing” is “overreach and people are looking for something to complain.”
With that said, Carafano added that the criticism from those who feel Trump was too amicable toward Kim and didn’t press him enough on human rights or the death of Otto Warmbier is “justified.” But he said that’s also just “how Trump is” and “how he negotiates.”
“If Trump wants to offer a deal to someone, he acts nice to them,” he said.
From this point on, Carafano said the big questions for North Korea are whether it can trust Trump’s assurances he’ll assist it economically if Pyongyang agrees to denuclearization, and whether “Trump will still be [president] in two years.”