With 'no need to rush,' Washington should reassess North Korea policy

With 'no need to rush,' Washington should reassess North Korea policy
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For many Korea-watchers, the outcome at the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi — no deal — was a plot twist at the eleventh hour. In the weeks, days, hours, minutes leading up to the Trump-Kim talks, the expectation — however enthusiastic, begrudging, or one of resignation — had been the two would reach an agreement that would lead to “peaceful relations” between the countries. After all, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE was ready to end the Korean War.

So when the international press was informed that talks would end early, that there would be no luncheon, no signing of a joint statement, the old writing on the wall was promptly struck through, replaced by a new decision in all caps: President Trump and Kim Jong Un could not reach a deal.

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During his tag-team press conference with Secretary Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEx-Watergate prosecutor says evidence in impeachment inquiry 'clearly' points to Trump Pompeo rejects idea that the United States abandoned Kurds Mike Pompeo's Faustian bargain MORE following the talks, Trump said it came down to sanctions — and then some. Per Trump, Kim promised him no nuclear and missile testing. And although North Korea was willing to give up the Yongbyon nuclear research facility, Kim was “not prepared to do more” in exchange for his request that the U.S. lift sanctions in their entirety. As Secretary Pompeo elaborated, the two sides were unable to achieve common ground on the timing, sequencing and additional North Korean gives — Trump alluded to an “area [the North Koreans] weren’t willing to do” — in return for sanctions lifting.

North Korea disputes that account, warning that the United States has wasted an opportunity that might not happen again.

But speed, according to Trump, no longer is a factor in his push-pull with Kim. In the press session before the talks, Trump emphasized he was in no rush for a deal: “I can say that just a little bit longer-term, and over a period of time, I know we’re going to have a fantastic success. I’ve been saying very much from the beginning that speed is not that important to me.”

This rationale, in the days leading up to the summit, was interpreted as Washington lowering the bar on what constitutes an acceptable deal with Pyongyang. And many experts had been apprehensive that this lowered bar would bring about a U.S. concession with far-reaching implications for the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and Washington’s strategic interests — such as the reduction of U.S. troop presence in Seoul, removal of U.S. strategic assets in the region, sanctions relaxation, an end-of-war declaration, or even a peace agreement with Pyongyang.

These moves — made under the pretense of removing longstanding obstacles to building confidence with North Korea and creating an atmosphere wherein the Kim regime no longer would feel threatened to justify its tight grip on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — have, under a nuclear-armed North Korea, the potential to effect an outcome antithetical to a veritable, enduring peace on the peninsula.

Interestingly, this same rationale — that speed is subordinate to getting a good agreement toward North Korea’s denuclearization — appears to work in justifying not only a lowered bar on what’s an acceptable deal when it comes to Pyongyang’s denuclearization, but also in justifying Trump’s modified stance on negotiations with the Kim regime. Now that there is no hard timeline for solving the North Korea problem, Washington does not need to rush into an agreement of unequally yoked commitments.

The pressure to hasten into an agreement with North Korea having been lifted, the United States should take the time to determine its next steps, map out and practice a strategy in dealing with the Kim regime, and set red lines on critical issues (sanctions, coordination with South Korea) so as to establish coherence and consistency in its North Korea policy. President Trump did not specify next steps, so it remains to be seen how this will unravel.

Ironically, today marks the 100th anniversary of the March First Movement — demonstrations for Korean resistance during the period of Japan’s colonization. In commemoration of this event, and to drive home the assertion that Korea is the author of its destiny, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, anticipating a successful deal between Trump and Kim, had planned to unveil the details of his new inter-Korean economic cooperation policy during a national ceremony. In light of what happened in Vietnam, however, Seoul likely will need to reassess its plans moving forward with inter-Korean relations and its alliance with Washington.

Trump explained that, with a bad deal, “Sometimes you have to walk. I’m always prepared to walk.” Under the circumstances, no deal likely was a better alternative to a small or interim deal wherein U.S. concessions would outweigh North Korea’s rinse-and-repeat token gestures of dismantling an already useless nuclear test facility. The jury is still out, however.

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.