Lessons from Hanoi with Prof Stephan Haggard

Lessons from Hanoi with Prof Stephan Haggard

Donald Trump was widely criticised for walking away in Hanoi but the disappointing end of the summit holds prospects for a more realistic approach to denuclearisation. With input from Prof Stephan Haggard, here is some insight into what really happened in Hanoi and what we can expect to happen next.

Stephan Haggard is Professor for Political Science and Korea-Pacific Studies at the University of California San Diego and one of the leading academics on North Korea.

On February 28th, the much anticipated Hanoi summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim came to a premature end. Both leaders met to advance the denuclearisation process agreed on at their previous meeting in Singapore, but parted when the US walked away without a deal.

After the last summit had ended with a non-binding statement about North Korea’s commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization,“ the US hoped to receive some material concessions. Commentators were quick to blame Trump’s hawkish negotiating style for failing on this. To be sure, Trump has a reputation for staging walk-outs to get what he wants. But this one looks different. It does not seem like an attempt to elicit concessions from Kim Jong-un by unsettling him, but rather an honest admission that the gap between their proposals was still too wide, and that more time and new ideas were needed. It also was not Trump who single-handedly terminated the summit. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister, Choe Son Hui, also recognised that “the chairman has lost the will to engage in dealmaking”.

What exactly happened?

Prior to Hanoi, the parties’ relationship suffered under North Korea criticising the US for not lifting sanctions despite the halt on nuclear and missile tests. Pompeo is right when he says negotiations are at a better place now because of Pyongyang’s readiness to consider making further concessions as part of a bigger deal. What ended the talks, however, was that both parties asked too much of each other. If we consider what was on the line for Trump, whose personal lawyer was being grilled by Congress, and for Kim, whose country is suffering under the sanctions, we see why both were eager on “the big deal.“

Trump explained: “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety“ in exchange for dismantling nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex. To strike a grand bargain, however, the US requested dismantling all nuclear sites plus a list of missiles and warheads in the country. Trump gave away that these sites include the covert uranium enrichment facility Kangson and “other things that you [the media] haven’t talked about (…) that we found.“

There was some confusion when the North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ri Yong-ho, claimed they had merely asked “to lift articles of sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people.“ However, this was probably more of a wording issue than a substantial misunderstanding. North Korea’s phrasing aimed to decouple “civilian economy“ sanctions from the weapons issue as Trump talked about turning North Korea into an economic powerhouse. But the profits gained from lifting those sanctions would have come close to lifting all, figuratively. Trump’s imprecise word choice added to the confusion. Prof Haggard agrees: “I thought that Trump had exaggerated what the North Koreans sought, but considering how much these particular sanctions constrain the regime, Trump was closer to the truth than Ri Yong-ho.“

Additionally, Prof Haggard argues, Trump made the mistake of relying on his personal relationship with Kim. During the press conference he praised the Chairman as a “very good friend“ and a “very strong guy,“ “not taking orders from anybody.“ Prof Haggard concludes: “Some of what he says about Kim Jong Un he probably doesn’t himself believe; it is flattery with a purpose. But personal chemistry does not solve complex issues involving nuclear weapons and missiles.“

What now?

Although Ri Yong-ho warned that Pyongyang’s insistence on their current proposal could not be changed, North Korea agreed to continue the talks. It is unlikely that they would let relations return to their frosty state during the Obama administration.

The fact that Trump refused to talk about toughening sanctions multiple times at the press conference shows that he has left the “fire and fury“ days behind. His recent announcement against new sanctions on North Korea further demonstrates this attitude. He understands that threatening North Korea will not secure their cooperation. While some see weakness in his restraint, an appreciation of the North Korean desire for equal and respectful treatment is essential for keeping them interested and optimistic about the chances of an agreement. The decision to terminate the annual US-ROK Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills affirms this stance and could serve as a building block for smaller concessions from the North.

Most importantly, the fact that both sides left Hanoi with a positive outlook signals that, the long-term trust-building process which had suffered since Singapore is back on track. Negotiations are transitioning from a grand bargain to a step-by-step approach that would start with a careful sequencing of less ambitious agreements. Experts suggest this is a more realistic way of locking in some progress.

What lies ahead?

In terms of what Pyongyang might do next, Prof Haggard suggests: “They will clearly announce that they are going back to production and other work related to the nuclear programme, but without testing nuclear weapons and perhaps not even missiles. If Trump is unwilling to bargain, North Korea will try to raise the bribe price. The real question is whether they cross over to real testing. That would be a sign that the talks were seriously stalled. But even testing would probably not kill them. We are in for a long slog; that is increasingly apparent.“

No, the chances for concluding 25 years of US denuclearisation efforts have not increased, but neither has the Hanoi summit shattered hopes that material progress can be made. If Trump receives positive feedback for his “better right than fast“ approach and a sequencing schedule can be agreed, the next summit might feature a peace declaration and smaller denuclearisation measures. As US officials have correctly pointed out, the Trump-Kim relationship has improved, but over-emphasising that could embarrass Trump if actual progress is not made. This is linked to the concern that Kim might value the glamour of summitry more than bargaining in working-level talks. If these consultations stall again, despite a more patient, more flexible US position, Trump will have to rethink. For now, however, most signs point towards difficult but more realistic step-by-step progress.

About Author

Louis Reitmann

Louis Reitmann is a MSc International Relations student at the London School of Economics where he focusses on EU foreign and defence policy as well as security challenges in East Asia. He studied Political Science at the Universities of Vienna, Nottingham, and Chicago, and has worked with the U.S. State Department, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the German Foreign Office.