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Hanoi Havoc Every Which Way But Lose

  • Adam Mount
  • May, 2019
  • 308
  • Trump talks



In the most important sense, the Hanoi summit failed for a very simple reason: North Korea will never end its nuclear arsenal over the next months or years. However, this hardly means that talks may fail − just the opposite. It is more important than ever that the negotiations succeed in limiting the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. Without a decisive shift in course, a third summit would only end up like the first two.

Pyongyang’s conduct over the past year and decade should leave hardly any doubt about its intention to keep its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has made unreasonable requests for compensation, unclear during talks and continued to expand, hide and deploy its arsenal even as they carried on talking. The Hanoi summit failed to disarm North Korea because North Korea is hardly disarming.

But in another sense, the summit failed because the Donald Trump administration has kept on saying immediate disarmament is the only acceptable outcome.

When Pyongyang refuses an unlikely proposal to hand over a down payment of warheads, the administration goes off in search of the next unlikely proposal that might happen to work. Mr. Trump is unprepared and unequipped to talk an interim deal or to move to another item on the agenda − because there are hardly any other items on the agenda. Even after the sudden end of the summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the press that ‘we couldn’t quite get there today’ on Yongbyon (located about 100 kilometres north of Pyongyang, a major nuclear facility operating its first nuclear reactors), missiles, warheads and a declaration. This mistaken claim that a grand deal is just around the corner never brings confidence about the administration has a realistic or achievable plan.

For months, the Trump administration has been giving up ground on its position, leaving demands that it would never consider modification of American-South Korea military exercises, that no sanctions would be put on the table, that Pyongyang would provide a declaration of its nuclear facilities. Now these concessions have brought it near to a reasonable talking position but the administration has arrived at this point with little credibility and having wasted an invaluable year.

It is time for a reset of the American negotiation policy. Without a decisive shift in tactics, the talks will stay idle, and a third summit will only end like the second.

The next round of talks will be harder, never easier. Mr. Trump has taught North Korean officials that they can avoid his expert diplomats, send flattering letters, and then made him less angry at the summit. Unless Mr. Trump is able to credibly delegate authority to Special Representative Steve Biegun − to point to him and say, ‘When you negotiate with him, you’re negotiating with me,’ he’ll walk into and out of a third summit without a deal in hand.

The talks remain an important final chance to limit the North Korean nuclear programme. The first important thing in negotiations should be to codify and make permanent the limits that Pyongyang chose voluntarily. Disabling the reactors at Yongbyon, until they can be safely and verifiably dismantled is a good first step. An agreement that prevents nuclear tests and certain types of missile tests could provide real limits on the arsenal and enable more talks.

Why not, when faced with a difficult situation on disarmament measures, sign that agreement to maintain momentum through Hanoi? Instead, the president reported that Kim Jong-un had promised to keep his voluntary halt to nuclear and some missile tests.

‘I trust him, and I take him at his word,’ Mr. Trump said.

It is unlikely that this president will ever have the discipline, humility and proficiency to successfully conduct the difficult talks needed to defend the interests of America and its allies against a nuclear-armed North Korea. Yet, if the president empowers the right parts of his team to work with Seoul while he turns his attention to his domestic campaigns and scandals, the opportunity may not go to waste after all.

Meanwhile, Washington and Seoul are expected to announce in the coming days that the annual military exercises between the two nations are to be scaled back.

The large-scale military exercises, known as ‘Foal Eagle’ and ‘Key Resolve’, had been scheduled for this spring. Now, both nations will instead conduct smaller exercises at a small unit level that could involve virtual training.

Defence officials say they can achieve the necessary training goals through reducing the exercises.

The announcement is expected to come short...

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