FOLLOWING HIS failed summit in Hanoi with Kim Jong Un, President Trump announced that the North Korean ruler had tried to sell him on a blatantly one-sided deal. But since then, it has emerged that the president arrived in Hanoi with his own nonstarter proposal.
In the initial account, North Korea was demanding that five U.N. resolutions containing the most potent sanctions be lifted in exchange for the closing of one nuclear facility — which would have left the regime’s arsenal of nuclear warheads and intercontinental missiles untouched, along with other production sites. Mr. Trump seemingly had no choice but to walk away.
But we have since learned that Mr. Trump, for his part, tried to persuade Mr. Kim to commit to the complete dismantlement of his arsenal and production facilities for all weapons of mass destruction, in exchange for the end of sanctions. As top U.S. intelligence officials publicly warned before the summit, North Korea is not prepared now to undertake full disarmament, and may never be.
The vast disconnect between the two proposals explains why the summit ended so abruptly, and it points to the illusions that were cherished by the leaders. Both appeared to believe the other was desperate for a deal and could be induced to accept terms their aides might otherwise dismiss. The result is a dangerous impasse, as North Korea takes steps to refurbish a missile testing and launch site that Mr. Kim promised Mr. Trump would be dismantled. Some experts believe the regime may be preparing to stage a satellite launch — a step that could rekindle the crisis that preceded the first Trump-Kim summit last June.
The diplomatic failure should have prompted the Trump administration to reconsider its strategy. Instead, it seems to be doubling down. The State Department’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, on Monday rejected the idea of seeking a partial or staged deal. “We are not going to do denuclearization incrementally,” he declared. “The missing variable is North Korea itself has to also fully commit to the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction and affiliated programs,” he said.
The administration is right to seek an unambiguous North Korean acceptance of denuclearization as a goal; the statement Mr. Trump agreed to at his summit with Mr. Kim last June was less than clear. But it’s unlikely to make progress toward that end, or even preserve the fragile detente under which North Korea has suspended warhead and missile testing, unless it is willing to move in stages.
The administration is understandably anxious to avoid repeating previous deals in which North Korea has obtained sanctions relief for partial steps and then reneged. Yet there could be ways to make progress while avoiding past pitfalls. Before Hanoi, there were suggestions the United States could agree to noneconomic steps, such as a declaration ending the state of war between the two countries, in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. South Korea might be allowed to pursue limited economic initiatives with the North while broad sanctions remain in place. Rather than discuss such possibilities, Mr. Trump “challenged Chairman Kim to go big,” as Mr. Biegun put it. In light of Mr. Trump’s failure, the logical course would be to send lower-level negotiators back to the table to work on smaller steps.