Christopher Hill: Don't act too eager for a North Korea deal

Christopher Hill: Don't act too eager for a North Korea deal
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Whether buying a rug or negotiating denuclearization, it usually pays not to be too anxious for a deal. But that is precisely what the author of “The Art of the Deal” has done, a fact that is likely to lead to very slow progress in Hanoi when President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for their second summit.

As Kim’s train continues to chug its way to Hanoi, it is widely understood that the Trump-Kim Singapore summit did little to advance the cause of denuclearization. The president, while giving up nothing in terms of international sanctions, gave himself up in a way that was extremely advantageous to the prestige-starved North Korean regime. He wooed the North Korean leader, who is half his age, with flattery and business tips, lots of goodwill gestures to be sure, but ones likely to be more received by the North Koreans as acts of weakness offered up by an embattled U.S. president.  

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The Singapore joint statement appeared hastily drafted and, more ominously, while President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE named the U.S. follow-on negotiator, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIs America headed toward war? Is America headed toward war? Polar bear spotted hundreds of miles south of normal hunting grounds MORE, the North Koreans came to Singapore having failed to name one of their own, saying they would do so at a later date.  

Joint statements rarely have such asymmetries. Normally, if one side cannot name its negotiator, the other side should wait until it is ready to do so. But President Trump wants this deal, and badly so.

Noticeably at Singapore and in the run-up to Hanoi, the view has prevailed that the North Koreans have a well-founded, justifiable fear of America and its supposed hostile policy. This was clearly the message that Kim conveyed to Trump during their one-on-one meetings (alas, we will probably never know). In fact, at his press conference prior to his departure, President Trump showed that he had learned to speak some North Korean by referring not to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises but, rather, to the North Korean formulation of “provocative war games.” He went on to suggest publicly that he would like to bring U.S. troops home from Korea, a comment that has since taken on more meaning in the intervening months by the news of troop withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan.

For months, North Korea avoided U.S. negotiators and, when they did meet, felt the need to resort to their customary charm by threatening the U.S. and accusing the U.S. secretary of State of resorting to “gangster” tactics against them. Secretary Pompeo’s handpicked envoy, Steve Begin, had to wait until December before having any negotiating session of his own with his elusive North Korean counterpart.

There have been some developments. During the time between Singapore and Hanoi, the North Koreans engaged in some random acts of denuclearization, including shutting down a nuclear test site and doing the same to an engine testing facility.

Yet, in the absence of any effort to list their nuclear facilities, it is hard to discern whether those facilities are simply being replaced by better ones, or whether they are the early harbingers of a coming nuclear-free spring.

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In the immediate advent of Hanoi, there has been great attention paid to the idea of an “End of War” declaration, a feel-good-all-the-way-around proclamation that would replace the 1953 Armistice, which was, after all, merely an elaborate ceasefire.  

Why is this “historical” declaration necessary? It is broadly understood that the North Koreans want it. And why do they want it? That is the essential question.

Perhaps they consider the existing armistice as inadequate, something the U.S. might be tempted to tear up at a minute’s notice and launch an invasion of North Korea, for which Pyongyang accuses U.S. troops in South Korea of preparing. After all, so goes the argument, the “historic” declaration would mean the U.S. would have given up its hostile policy and signify that the Korean War has truly ended. More worrisome is the possibility that they may want it to buttress their shopworn argument that U.S. troops are no longer needed on the Korean peninsula.  

Or, perhaps, in addition to assuaging North Korean fears, a declaration also would assuage President Trump’s ego. After all, it has never been done before, and the president has his eye on the prize — Nobel, that is.

President Trump has said on several occasions that he is in no hurry, a statement that could well get added to the list of his prevarications. He is, indeed, in a great hurry. Assuming the North Koreans are not, he might want to consider in sorrow — rather than anger — informing them, clearly but privately, that he has no choice but to continue the sanctions and encourage others to do so as well.

President Trump repeatedly has taken on the Republican Party’s conventional wisdom, and his policies toward North Korea are certainly an example of this. And, so far, the Republican foreign-policy establishment, whiplashed as it may be by Singapore and Hanoi, seems willing to give him time.  

But the president needs to be honest with them, as well as with the rest of our country, by stating clearly what he is trying to do, the fact that it is an uphill struggle, and convey the difficult message that, one way or the other, the United States must succeed in the project of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.   

Christopher Hill was a U.S. diplomat in South Korea from 1983 to 1985, then returned as U.S. ambassador in 2004-2005. He became the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2006 and was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-2008. In 1995 he helped to negotiate the Dayton Accords, ending the war in Bosnia, and served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, 2009-2010. He is now a professor of diplomacy and chief adviser to the chancellor for global engagement at the University of Denver.