Trump left Hanoi with no credible path forward

Trump left Hanoi with no credible path forward
© Getty Images

Even before president Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE walked away from the negotiating table, failure was already baked into his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In the eight months since Singapore, North Korean officials, including the young leader himself, rebuffed American efforts to codify Kim’s vague promise to denuclearize — no comprehensive declaration of nuclear assets, no specific timetable to give anything up, no substantive movement whatsoever.


The president resorted to flattery — he’s a great guy, really. He offered incentives; a political declaration ending the Korean war and/or opening liaison offices, a step towards diplomatic recognition. He employed vivid imagery: North Korea could be an economic powerhouse with great beaches and condos.

No deal.

Scientists see failures as learning opportunities. So should policymakers. So what did we learn in Hanoi? And what does it mean going forward?

The short answer is, a lot, certainly enough to call into question the American negotiating strategy and arguably its policy.

In their abbreviated negotiation in Hanoi, Kim apparently offered to dismantle a portion of his nuclear capability, centered on North Korea’s nuclear research center at Yongbyon, in return for partial sanctions relief. In a rare press conference afterwards, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho confirmed Pyongyang’s position.

A partial deal certainly fits Kim’s negotiating strategy. As he made clear in Singapore, all concessions must be reciprocal — you want something from me, you have to give me something in return.

His willingness to accept constraints on his nuclear capability while retaining his nuclear deterrent is consistent with his long-term objective as well. Kim wants normal relations with the United States and international recognition as a de facto nuclear state.

Even with the setback in Hanoi, Kim can live with the current dynamic indefinitely. While he has suspended nuclear and missile testing, every indication is North Korea continues to perfect the capabilities it has.

If negotiations resume, they will likely continue on Kim’s terms: a step-by-step process rather than a grand bargain.

Kim’s offer fell short of the American objective. This is a significant movement towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization or CVID before receiving any sanctions relief.

But it’s possible we just received Kim’s best offer. A partial rollback of North Korea’s nuclear capability may well be all he is willing to do.

The president is right to say the existing freeze for freeze should happen. The mutual suspension of U.S. military exercises with South Korea and North Korean nuclear and missile tests is a real accomplishment. It has provided time and space to try and solve the vexing challenge posed by North Korea.

But as Trump is now learning, eliminating actual nuclear weapons is much harder than guarding against nuclear aspirations. The last country to give up actual weapons was Ukraine. There is little doubt that Kiev wished they had them now.

The failure in Hanoi gives added credence to the current U.S. intelligence assessment — disputed by the president prior to the summit — that Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear capability in its entirety. Even if Kim could be convinced to give up everything, that point is a long way off, certainly well beyond Trump’s time in office.

Both the president and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoPompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Dozens of scientists call for deeper investigation into origins of COVID-19, including the lab theory MORE said they are anxious to get the respective negotiating teams back together quickly, but to what end?

Pyongyang could try to add more meat to the partial deal it offered in Hanoi. Yet given the president’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal because it failed to solve the nuclear problem once and for all, Trump has left himself in an all-or nothing situation — CVID or bust.

But as things stand now, an interim deal appears unacceptable and CVID implausible. And given the lack of regional support for a return to fire and fury, there are no good military options either.

Thus, Trump left Hanoi with a diplomatic process, but no credible path forward. There may well be periodic working level meetings in the future, but more likely than not, summitry has run its course.

Notwithstanding the president’s rhetoric that he will solve the North Korea problem one way or another, after Hanoi, it’s pretty clear there will be no deal with Kim Jong Un.

Given his mounting legal problems at home, Trump will refocus his attention to his political survival. At the end of his term, either two or six years hence, he’ll hand off an unresolved North Korean problem to his successor, just like Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden expected to tap Rahm Emanuel for Japan ambassador Baltimore businessman enters Maryland governor race Press: Let us now praise Liz Cheney MORE did.

It will be up to the next president to decide what to do about Trump’s best friend and what the United States can live with.

P.J. Crowley is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and author of "Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States." Follow him on Twitter: @pjcrowley.