US-North Korea diplomacy stalled when Trump stopped negotiating

Can a negotiation between two adversarial governments survive if the individual negotiators on the opposite side of the table can’t stand one another? More than six weeks after the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi concluded without a comprehensive denuclearization agreement, Washington and Pyongyang will have to grapple with that question.

Last week, North Korean diplomat Kwon Jong-gun condemned U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist US bans top Myanmar generals from country over attacks on Rohingya Muslims MORE as a counterpart, calling him an obstacle to the ongoing diplomatic process. “I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy…and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon was quoted as saying in a KCNA state media report. “Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the U.S., I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but [another] person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

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While Pompeo has no doubt made mistakes in his interactions with North Korean officials during this nearly year-long process, replacing him will do little good in getting diplomacy back on track. At this point in the talks, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE could bring back Harry Houdini from the dead, anoint him the chief U.S. negotiator, and negotiations would remain at an impasse.

The truth officials in both countries must face is this: Personalities matter in diplomacy, but when existential questions are at stake, even the most gifted diplomats can only do so much to realign vital national security interests. And for the North Korean regime, nuclear disarmament is core to its survival  — it’s the definition of existential to them.

As troublesome as John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonWill Iran 'break out' for a nuclear weapon, and what can Trump do? Hillicon Valley: FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine | Trump calls to regulate Facebook's crypto project | Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract | Study shows automation will hit rural areas hardest Trump again considering dismissing intelligence chief Dan Coats: report MORE’s demeanor may be for good-faith negotiations, the real gap that must be bridged is far more difficult and challenging to resolve. If talks collapse, they will collapse because both states refused to move from their unrealistic , maximalist positions which are irreconcilable.

Even if Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnNorth Korea warns US-South Korea drills threaten nuclear talks Member of Senate GOP leadership says Trump tweets are racist A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats MORE had already made the strategic decision to disarm  — a prospect for which there remains little, if any, evidence — he would still not comply with near-term, up-front denuclearization demands. Leaving aside the very serious, complex details of such an undertaking, Kim would need to trust the United States to forego regime change, guaranteeing his survival, and also deliver on all the other tradeoffs, like sanctions relief and other economic incentives.

Seen through this lens, it is abundantly clear why President Trump’s latest bid in Hanoi was rebuffed out of hand and resulted in a premature departure.

Unless the Trump administration realistically assesses the situation, diplomacy will result in nothing substantive.

Despite differences in style and Trump’s willingness to meet with North Korea’s leader, the Trump administration’s bottom-line position is indistinguishable from every U.S. administration over the last three decades: If North Korea wants to normalize its relations with the U.S., integrate economically with the rest of East Asia, and enjoy peace with its neighbors, it must give up all of its weapons of mass destruction and dismantle its entire ballistic missile capability. This is the position of national security advisor John Bolton  — it demands Pyongyang capitulate immediately, completely and unreservedly to American demands for the mere prospect of concessions.

It should go without saying that this strategy has failed time and time again, just as it predictably failed in Hanoi. And yet, like clockwork, Washington continues to insist on the same bankrupted formula under the delusional theory that economic sanctions will force Kim to part ways with his regime’s nuclear security blanket.

With a position like this, it simply won’t matter who is negotiating on behalf of the United States. Whether it is Mike Pompeo, Stephen Biegun, Henry Kissinger, or the great George Marshall, the result will be the same unless the objectives adjust to strategic reality and common sense.

While the world would be better off if North Korea didn’t possess nuclear weapons, that ship sailed long ago. It is exponentially easier to convince a country to not begin a nuclear weapons program than to give one up once it already exists.

Fortunately, though denuclearization may still be a long-term U.S. goal, our military’s unrivaled conventional and strategic deterrence power means it is not a requirement for American national security. That means U.S. officials are all the more foolish to preface their entire North Korea policy on attaining in short order an unnecessary and unrealistic ideal. Washington is prioritizing its fantasies at the expense of achievable outcomes. Focusing on denuclearization at the cost of everything else — in particular the establishment of a peace and security regime on the Korean Peninsula and more constructive U.S.-North Korean ties — degrades Washington’s flexibility and prevents diplomatic progress beneficial to everyone.

To date, the Trump administration has used peace on the Korean Peninsula as a bargaining chip — something to trade away in return for Pyongyang’s complete and verifiable nuclear surrender. But peace can be accomplished right now, even if the Kim regime remains nuclear-capable for now. A formal end to the Korean War and the beginning of an era where the U.S. and North Korea can engage each other in something closer to normality — shuttering the prospects of war in the process — is within reach.

It would be a significant groundbreaking achievement for U.S. security and a win-win-win scenario for everyone involved. The two Koreas would finally experience a time when the cloud of war is lifted, and Pyongyang  — increasingly open to its neighbors and the world — could be transformed over time to the benefit of oppressed North Koreans.

Washington’s fixation on up-front denuclearization is guaranteed to produce only missed opportunities to achieve better outcomes for the U.S., just as prior administrations have over the last quarter-century. Trump can avoid repeating those missteps by ignoring the Washington establishment, including some of his own advisors who cling to the same old, delusional approachTrump can avoid repeating those missteps by ignoring permanent Washington, including some of his advisors like Bolton.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.