A much-touted two-day summit between Donald Trump and North Korean chairman Kim Jong-Un failed to reach the finish line Thursday, as talks collapsed and Trump returned to Washington, DC. It’s ambiguous exactly what unraveled the process; Trump says Kim asked for the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for closing the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Complex, while North Korea reportedly says it asked for succor on some, but not all. But throwing around blame for Hanoi misses the moment: The summit was a mistake to begin with.
That’s not to say the US and North koreans shouldn’t pursue negotiations over the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear disposition. They absolutely should, and are expected to continue to, per Trump’s departing mentions. “Chairman Kim and myself, we want to do the right deal, ” Trump said. “Speed is not important.” But within that otherwise upbeat appraisal lies the primary impediment to real progress in the Korean Peninsula: Trump and Kim should not be the ones doing the deal, at least not the bulk of it. Hanoi is what happens when they try.
Trump has built his label as a captain delegate, despite uneven results in the political realm. And in fairness, his gambit to meet with Kim in Singapore last summertime resulted at the very least in what international relations wonks call confidence-building sets. Importantly, North Korea hasn’t experimented a intercontinental ballistic missile or atomic weapon in over a year. And the interrelationship with South Korea, while continuing to tense, has somewhat thawed.
“These are positive steps, and they show that the North Koreans are at least willing to have trade negotiations and is participating in diplomacy with South Korea and the United States, ” says James McKeon, a program analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a DC-based nonprofit.
But in the months since Singapore, North Korea has offered little to no evidence of curtailing its weapons programs. And why would they? Despite Trump’s declaration last June that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea, ” the Singapore accord substantiated exclusively that “the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization.” They’ll get to it, eventually, at some level, or at the very least demonstrate it some serious thought.
Chalk the vague speech, and the resulting absence of verifiable progress, up to Trump’s untraditional diplomacy. “When we firstly were looking at this going into the Singapore summit, we were saying that it was ass-backwards. This is not the style you’re supposed to do it, ” said former ambassador Robert Gallucci in a call with reporters. “You don’t start with the summit. You finish with the summit, and you make sure all the prep work is done, and then the two big-hearted guys presumably come together and sign something.”
Gallucci would know; as bos US negotiator, he facilitated fasten the 1994 Agreed Framework, which tamped down North Korea’s nuclear aspirations for nearly a decade. And while he acknowledges that tensions between Kim and Trump may have escalated to such a dangerous quality last summer–thanks in no small-scale constituent to Trump’s own rhetoric–that a shotgun elevation in Singapore was necessitated, he and others argue that it’s not a viable process for substantive change.
“President Trump’s unorthodox approach to finesse has created an opening, starting back in Singapore and is going to continue Hanoi, ” says Lynn Rusten, who dished as senior head for arms control and nonproliferation in the Obama administration and currently works on nuclear question at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “But the only course that is able to capitalize on that and draw it to fruition is to revert now to the more traditional negotiating process.”
Hanoi was anything but. Trump appointed the widely respected Stephen Biegun as special emissary to North Korea six months ago, but Biegun has recently been able to conduct a single round of working-level talks with his North Korean counterparts. And even that came only in the last three weeks, after Trump announced when the summit would take place during the course of its State of the Union address.
Nuclear diplomacy is not American Ninja Warrior . You don’t get bonus times for navigating difficulties faster. “It’s totally unrealistic to think that you can just go in with very few planning and reach an agreement on something that is so composite, ” says Rusten, particularly in view of how enmeshed the nuclear issues are with a broader set of the regions financial and security concerns. “There’s got to be an incremental, step by step approach.”
That should be especially evident held North Korea’s long history of failing to keep its nuclear predicts. As much as Trump has touted denuclearization as the endgame, arms control experts widely agree that there’s likely no way to get there overnight, or in a single sit-down. What it will take is weeks or months or more of people on the soil hammering out penalty details , not a single two-hour meet between two heads. Specially when at least one of them likely has interesting thing on his subconsciou.
And while Thursday’s failure could have been worse–Trump could have, say, promised to withdraw all US troops from South Korea, or Kim could have threatened to resume missile testing–it extracts a real cost. By trying for a grand agreement, Trump and Kim missed the opportunity to establish clear, specific goals that their units could drive then work towards.
“It’s somewhat surprising that they would participate such high-stakes poker at such a high-profile event, ” says Jenny Town, analyst at North koreans watchdog 38 North. “It’s really hard to see how we might maintain momentum going forward.”
Maintaining the status quo is preferable to more nuclear tests, but it’s not a viable long-term answer. “While it’s good that strains are down, North koreans is continuing to churn out fissile fabric and make artilleries, ” says Rusten. “The facts on the ground continue to change in a negative direction.”
It’s admirable that Trump has stirred counterbalancing security threats from North Korea a top priority. The relative calm of the last eight months shouldn’t be dismissed. But if the White House wants to make actual progress, it needs to put in the work before the next high-profile meeting. That’s one concession Trump, still further, seems reluctant to make.