Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. Certainly, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says Kim not responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death: ‘I will take him at his word’ Trump: I ‘trust’ Kim’s promise he won’t resume nuclear, missile tests Trump blasts Cohen, but ‘impressed’ with collusion comments MORE’s decision to walk out of the Hanoi summit and return to Washington to prepare his next tweetstorm is a better outcome than accepting a bad deal. But for the president to travel halfway around the world for a failed summit is worth some introspection and reflection.
North Korea’s apparent demand for full sanctions relief in return for decommissioning the Yongbyon nuclear facility probably was known well in advance. For an administration that has prided itself on not offering any sanctions relief until full denuclearization, the United States should have seen the train wreck well in advance and put on the brakes. President Trump and Secretary Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump says sanctions are a sticking point in nuclear talks with Kim Trump says ‘speed is not important’ in reaching nuclear deal with North Korea’s Kim Overnight Defense: US reportedly easing demands over North Korean nukes | Trump optimistic for deal | Dems rip plan to use military funds for wall | Pentagon urges India, Pakistan to calm tensions MORE have made the claim that they will not repeat the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. More accurately, none of their predecessors ever made the mistakes the Trump administration has made.
The president likes to think outside the box, but he should bear in mind that sometimes the box is there for a reason. Diplomacy did not begin with Donald Trump (though let’s hope it doesn’t end with him either). Typically, a decision to send the president on a roundtrip 20,000-mile journey would depend on whether a deal is at hand, not a long shot. It is true that in international negotiations, often a country’s negotiators resist making the concessions needed to conclude a deal and kick those up to the summit level. But this pattern usually is accompanied by signals, subtly but clearly conveyed, that a summit-level meeting will be successful.
Maybe the North Korean and U.S. negotiators gave each other these signals and, in so doing, got out ahead of their bosses, but that is rare — especially for North Korean negotiators, for whom such errors of judgment can be life-threatening.
One hopes that if Trump and Pompeo have any moment of reflection in the wake of the failed summit, they might use it to consider how a broader diplomatic architecture might improve the chances for success. Working with Xi Jinping’s China is may be difficult, but working against China is arguably far more so. The advantage of a more multilateral approach is to reinforce the circumstances that the North Koreans cannot go shopping in Beijing, or elsewhere, for a better deal.
Improved patterns of cooperation between the United States and China (and South Korea, Russia and Japan) can help keep the North Koreans focused on the deal on the table and not on leveraging it with side trips to, say, China, as Kim Jong Un has done four times in the past year (a somewhat unintended consequence of the Singapore-Hanoi process). Sustained cooperation among regional partners also makes a return to a sanctions-based policy more credible than it is today.
Addressing the North Korean nuclear problem is as complex an issue as any in the world today because it is not just about North Korea. The only time in history the United States has ever clashed with China was on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is China’s neighbor and a historical partner whose demise or even strategic shift toward South Korea and the United States is hardly a matter of disinterest in Beijing.
When China looks at the fragility of its Marxist-Leninist neighbor, it sees the potential for a U.S. ally on its border, possibly with U.S. listening posts or even U.S. military posts along the Yalu. It sees a neighbor whose demise might affect China’s own domestic political churn. With the help of a map and a history book, it is easy to understand why China wants stability in North Korea, but given the freighted history of Northeast Asia, it is equally clear why China worries about outcomes. After all, many Chinese can indeed see North Korea from their window.
South Korea’s attitudes toward North Korea are no less complex and deserving of serious and thoughtful U.S. strategy. Opinions in South Korea about North Korea are diverse. For any South Korean indifferent to the outcome, there are others for whom, rightfully so, the division of the Korean Peninsula was one of the most unjust legacies of the 20th century. The United States needs to understand the complexity of these attitudes and try to stay in sync with this important ally.
Importantly, President Trump did not allow the failure of the summit to affect the good vibes that appear to run between him and Kim Jong Un. He certainly seems to have overpaid for the relationship with his tasteless remark that he believes Kim on the circumstances of the death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, but the objective of keeping open the road to future talks was valid.
One hopes that a U.S. delegation will be dispatched quickly to meet with regional countries — including to Japan, whose public held its collective breath on whether there would be some kind of agreement on missiles that would enhance or diminish its security. Looking beyond, however, President Trump might consider saving his frequent flyer miles and see whether his diplomatic negotiators might be able to bring something back for him to consider.
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.
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