President Trump loves to do the unexpected — to zig when others expect him to zag. It is, in many ways, the secret of his success: If he ever becomes boring and predictable, he will cease to get the breathless news coverage that he needs, in the way that normal people need oxygen.
After ratcheting up tensions with North Korea in 2017, even threatening to rain down “fire and fury,” Trump shocked the world last year by becoming the first U.S. president to meet with a leader of North Korea. He went from denouncing Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” to praising him as “my friend.” “We fell in love,” Trump said. As recently as Wednesday, Trump said that the two leaders had a “very special relationship,” words once reserved for the U.S. alliance with Britain.
Trump’s panegyrics to Kim raised expectations that the Hanoi summit would end in some kind of deal. Administration officials signaled that the United States would be willing to grant a peace declaration ending the Korean War, exchange liaison offices with North Korea and relax sanctions to allow South Korea to build closer economic ties with Pyongyang. In return, Kim was expected to shutter at least part of Yongbyon, the country’s main, but hardly sole, nuclear weapons facility. Many experts feared that Trump, desperate to distract attention from his political troubles, might go even further by agreeing to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea. When NBC News reported on Wednesday afternoon that the administration was dropping its demands that North Korea provide a full accounting of its weapons of mass destruction, critics’ worst fears appeared to be coming true.
Surprise! Nothing if not unpredictable, Trump instead abruptly walked away from the negotiations. The two sides did not even issue a joint communique, as they did after Singapore. At his news conference, Trump couldn’t resist fawning over Kim, excusing him for the killing of American student Otto Warmbier and insisting that “we’re positioned to do something very special.” But Trump refused to give Kim the sanctions relief he wanted in return for shuttering Yongbyon. (Trump claimed Kim wanted all sanctions lifted; Kim’s foreign minister said it was only some.). That would have left North Korea’s undeclared nuclear facilities intact, along with its nuclear and missile stockpiles.
Trump deserves credit for this statesmanlike act, which echoes President Ronald Reagan’s willingness to leave the Reykjavik summit in 1986 without a deal after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev insisted that the United States give up its missile-defense program. No deal is infinitely preferable to a bad deal. But Trump’s own hubris and inexperience set up the failure in Hanoi.
Normally, by the time world leaders meet, a rough agreement has already been hammered out by their aides. But there was not nearly as much progress as necessary before the rendezvous in Hanoi. This summit should never have been held in the first place.
North Korean officials refused to make concessions in meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and special envoy Stephen E. Biegun, in no small part because Trump undercut his own diplomats at every turn. Pompeo had started off demanding “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” with the necessary first step being a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. But instead of ratcheting up the pressure, Trump let the North Koreans off the hook. He repeatedly said, “I am in no rush — we just we don’t want the testing.”
This gave Kim the impression that he could manipulate Trump with flowery letters of praise and be rewarded with concessions in a one-on-one meeting that North Korea could never have won in normal negotiations. Trump, in turn, imagined that, with his vaunted dealmaking skills, he could walk into a room with Kim and extract concessions that his aides could never achieve on their own. “Deals are my art form,” Trump tweeted in 2014. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” Perhaps Trump should get his kicks some other way?
It turns out that Trump’s entire outreach to North Korea has been built on a mountain of misconceptions. The intelligence community was right, and Trump was wrong: North Korea has no intention of denuclearizing.
Trump would be well advised to return to the policy of “maximum pressure” that he adopted in 2017. Only he can’t. With his two summits, the president has conferred legitimacy on the North Korean tyrant and given China and Russia an excuse to relax sanctions enforcement. Unless Kim is foolish enough to conduct another nuclear or missile test, it is hard to see sanctions returning to where they were in 2017.
Trump will hail the lack of tests as a triumph, but North Korea continues to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. Nuclear expert Siegfried S. Hecker estimated in a Post op-ed that North Korea created enough fissile material last year for six more nuclear bombs. After his first summit with Kim, Trump tweeted: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Now, after the second summit, North Korea’s nuclear threat is greater than ever. That is no victory.