Since then, North Korea has carried out more than a dozen missile and rocket tests, says denuclearization is no longer on the negotiating table, has called Trump an erratic “dotard” and has threatened to deliver an unwelcome “Christmas gift.”
Many lay blame on the North Korean regime, arguing it was never serious about dismantling its nuclear arsenal and presented an unrealistic set of demands when Trump met Kim for a second time in Hanoi in February.
But there’s also plenty of evidence that Trump and his team bear responsibility, too, for derailing the negotiations — delivering mixed messages, failing to understand their counterparts, demanding too much and making undeliverable promises.
So what went wrong?
Trump created opportunity
Trump persuaded China and Russia to impose some of the strongest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea. But even more importantly, according to Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, his talk of “fire and fury” really rattled the regime.
Whether it was a bluff or not, Trump left the North Koreans believing he could consider military action against North Korea. And then he did what no other U.S. president had dared do: He opened the door to summit-level talks. Many analysts in North Korean affairs say Kim came to Singapore prepared to talk seriously about a deal, to reduce his nuclear arsenal in return for peace and a better relationship with the United States.
Mistakes in Singapore
But Trump made at least two key mistakes in Singapore, analysts say. First, he failed to get Kim to define what he meant by the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Ever since, Washington and Pyongyang have talked at cross purposes. The U.S. side interpreted the phrase to mean unilateral North Korean denuclearization. The North Koreans insist it refers to the removal of U.S. “nuclear threats” to their country before the removal of its deterrence. The United States has a “misguided understanding” of the phrase, North Korea said in December 2018.
Trump also pledged to end joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which he described as provocative and expensive “war games.” It was a promise his military was not prepared to keep. Exercises were scaled back, but not stopped completely, to maintain a degree of combat readiness. North Korea says it feels “betrayed” by this broken promise and no longer obliged to keep its promises.
That opened major problems in the dialogue process.
North Korea believes it deserves something (such as ending exercises) in return for ceasing its nuclear and long-range missile tests. The United States believes dialogue is a sufficient reward for ending the tests and wants the two sides to start from zero when it comes to trading concessions.
But mistakes predate the Trump administration, says Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation who was involved in U.S.-North Korea talks from 1992 to 2000. He blamed the George W. Bush administration for ripping up a deal in 2002 for North Korea to freeze its plutonium enrichment program and allow international inspectors.
He said the Obama administration was also hasty in 2012 in walking away from its “Leap Day deal,” under which North Korea had pledged a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and to open itself up to new international inspections.
Taking on China
Even as Trump was talking to Kim, he was tangling with China, imposing sweeping tariffs in an escalating trade war. That has undermined U.S.-China cooperation over North Korea and given Kim an opening to repair his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Today, analysts say, China is sending huge numbers of tourists into North Korea and has significantly relaxed its enforcement of sanctions. Trump’s trade war with China effectively undercut his own “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that he had a “very good talk” with Xi on efforts to ease the trade tensions. “Also talked about North Korea, where we are working with China,” Trump wrote, without giving further details.
Signs that the process was unraveling came less than a month after the Singapore summit when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang. His call for North Korea to follow through on what he believed had been promised in Singapore provoked a furious response: Pyongyang denounced his “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” This was the first sign that the sides were on completely different pages over what had been agreed upon in Singapore. Still, Pompeo insisted the talks had been “productive.”
In Hanoi, Trump revealed an apparent lack of understanding about what really drives Kim. Trump has offered a “bright future” for North Korea if only it would surrender its nuclear arsenal. The “big deal” never interested the North Koreans. In effect, Pyongyang was being asked to surrender regime security in return for a vague promise of investment. That was never an attractive gamble for Kim.
By asking for everything, analysts say, Washington risked getting nothing. More realistic goals, they say, could have been seeking to contain and reduce North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in return for better relations.
But the biggest mistake in Hanoi might have been the way Trump snubbed Kim by canceling lunch and ending the meeting early. It’s the sort of tactic that might work well when trying to close a real estate deal, but might not be so effective when dealing with a prideful and capricious dictator. The snub might have increased internal pressure on Kim to take a tougher stand, or might simply have damaged his pride. Either way, he appeared visibly upset after the summit, and relations have since nose-dived.
Rough road ahead
Prospects for 2020 look bleak. Trump’s military threats no longer appear as convincing as they did in 2017, analysts say. His decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, for example, raised the characterization of Trump as a paper tiger. His contest with China means it will be next to impossible to rebuild the sanctions regime to its previous level. North Korea, meanwhile, appears to be heading back along a path of weapons tests and aggressive brinkmanship.