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(Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met this week in Hanoi to continue their talks on denuclearization. However, the summit was abruptly cut short on Thursday, with the president telling reporters that the two sides had failed to reach agreement on a number of issues, including sanctions. “Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times," Trump said.

It’s a major setback in the nuclear talks. Many experts had spent a long time analyzing what might count as a success in these talks, but now there’s a more important question: For Trump, what constitutes a failure?

There’s one obvious way this week’s summit could end up a failure in the short term. The two sides may be unable to agree to terms on a key issue, be it sanctions relief for North Korea or Washington’s demand to allow outside nuclear inspectors into the reclusive country. Trump or Kim would fully back out of talks, and the war of words between them would resume. North Korea might begin testing missiles or nuclear weapons again, marking a return to heightened tensions. Maybe things could get worse, risking a conflict that could kill millions.

Most experts contend that the likelihood of conflict is low, if it exists at all. “North Korea won’t attack us if we don’t attack them,” said David Kang, the director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. “Deterrence will hold.” But the implosion of talks would still mean an unwelcome return to tensions after more than a year of diplomacy and progress.

This brings us to the second possibility: a failure in the medium term. In this scenario, Trump and Kim would hammer out some kind of deal, but the agreement would be flawed and eventually collapse.

This kind of failure could hinge on relatively technical details in the agreement, like what to do about North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Yongbyon is North Korea’s only known source of plutonium and other materials necessary for making nuclear weapons, and it is widely expected to be a key part of any deal involving North Korea’s stockpile. But there is a difference between simply accepting a freeze on production and persuading Pyongyang to close and dismantle the site.

Speaking at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington on Tuesday, Moon Chung-in, an adviser to the South Korean president and a strong supporter of Trump’s talks, said he thought many in the United States would balk if Trump announced he had agreed to a suspension rather than full closure. “I really don’t think that the American people can accept just simply suspending production of nuclear materials — fissile materials — at Yongbyon,” Moon said.

That’s just one of the details that could make an agreement dead on arrival in the United States. Conceding too much on a technical point — or agreeing to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, as some observers fear he might — would open up Trump to criticism not just from his Democratic opponents, but from members of his own party and perhaps his administration.

In a recently released overview of prospects for U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, Catherine Killough of the Ploughshares Fund argued that “shortsighted decisions to abandon promising agreements” could often be traced to domestic concerns, including “partisanship and intraparty infighting” as well as leadership changes — battles that are commonplace in Washington.

Even if the two sides reached a good deal with solid support, things could still go wrong in the long term. Trump and Kim could reach an agreement in which North Korea agrees to real concessions on its nuclear program. High-level diplomatic relations would presumably improve, and the United States could move to withdraw sanctions.

However, nuclear weapons aren’t the only reason North Korea isn’t a full member of the international community. A nuclear deal would not solve Pyongyang’s long history of human rights abuses, for example — a subject the Trump administration has largely ignored of late.

Olivia Enos, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian studies center, told my colleague Siobhán O’Grady this week that Trump’s failure to raise human rights issues at the Singapore Summit last year was a “huge missed opportunity . . . to really shift Kim Jong Un’s risk calculus and to communicate to him that he cannot be viewed as a respected leader when he has between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in prison camps.”


South Korean protesters and North Korean defectors take part in a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, urging the United States to discuss North Korean human rights issues at the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

That lack of attention may prove disastrous in more ways than one: Politico noted this week that human rights abuses could lead Congress to block Trump’s attempts to remove some sanctions on North Korea. “Because of U.S. law today, the general counsel of any U.S. company is not going to recommend going into North Korea because of human rights abuses,” Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Politico.

Trump may be looking for a short-term success, but what will be more important — and much more difficult — will be to avoid a long-term failure. The president may be realizing this: he has shifted the goal posts several times in his negotiations with Kim, contradicting his own claims that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea and suggesting that he was in no rush to force North Korea to give up its nukes.

But Kim the dictator is all but certain to stick around longer than Trump the term-limited president. As Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote from Hanoi this week: “Time is surely on Kim’s side — he will outlast Trump and several more American presidents."

This post has been updated.

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