In the lead-up to the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting in Hanoi this week, I took U.S. President Donald Trump’s advice and kept my expectations low. Contrary to the lead-up to the Singapore Summit, where expectations on denuclearization in particular had been set sky-high, Trump worked in the run-up to Hanoi to lower them, emphasizing that he was in “no rush” for North Korea’s denuclearization—that all he cared about was that no nuclear or ballistic missile tests occur on his watch.
At Hanoi, the result came in even below my already low expectations. The two sides were unable to come to any productive agreement. Trump confessed at the press conference following the breakdown that the U.S. had even prepared “papers” for the two sides to sign; the White House had sent around a schedule to reporters prematurely announcing a “signing ceremony” too. All this was changed at the last moment and it increasingly looks like it was because North Korea had to walk out on the United States after it refused to budge on the core issue at the center of the process today—and in the past: sanctions.
Trump offered one version of what happened at approximately 2:00 p.m. local time in Hanoi on Thursday. Later that night, Ri Yong Ho, the North Korean foreign minister, convened a select group of journalists to make Kim Jong Un’s version of events heard. That the North Korean side convened a conference immediately instead of waiting to release its readout through its state-run media the following morning suggested some urgency in shifting the narrative. Trump had underscored to reporters that the cause of the collapse was Pyongyang’s demand for the “entirety” of sanctions to be lifted. North Korea offered some clarification.
It’s been no secret that Pyongyang sought sanctions relief as the One-Concession-Above-All in the ongoing process. The set of phrases it used to communicate this was perhaps too euphemistic for most audiences. On June 13, 2018, the day after the Singapore Summit, the country’s Korean Central News Agency noted that Kim had said further progress could come “if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship.” In the September 19, 2018, inter-Korean Pyongyang declaration, the phrase was “corresponding measures,” which might lead to sites “such as” the Yongbyon nuclear complex ending up on the negotiating table. In Kim’s January 1 New Year’s Day address two months ago, the language was “trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions.” All of these phrases signaled sanctions relief. Other measures, like an end-of-war declaration, the establishment of a liaison office, and military exercise modifications were nice-to-haves, but this was the core demand.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho made this clear in no uncertain terms after Hanoi, which in itself is an important service to the now admittedly troubled U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process. Ri noted that North Korea had a clear request in a clear sequence: it wanted the five most recent United Nations Security Council resolutions to be lifted and in exchange it would offer up the “nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area.”
Two observations on this statement: first, we had greater clarity than ever on the what the “corresponding measures”—sanctions relief—needed to look like from a North Korean perspective. Second, we had clarity on what “Yongbyon” meant in terms of North Korea’s offering. Parsing Ri’s comments, we can assume that the North Korean dismantlement offer might apply only to the 5 Mwe gas-graphite reactor and the gas centrifuge uranium enrichment halls. The experimental light-water reactor and the IRT research reactor would presumably remain, in addition to other sites at the complex, which contains some 300 man-made structures.
What “Yongbyon” as described by Ri represents as a proportion of North Korea’s total nuclear complex and weapons program is but a fraction of what the last five UNSC resolutions represent in terms of international pressure on North Korea. The sanctions regime is asymmetric across time, with the resolutions imposed in 2016 and 2017 representing a disproportionate amount of sanctions pressure on Pyongyang. The offer, thus, is drastically asymmetric: Trump may be technically wrong that North Korea asked for the “entirety” of sanctions to be repealed, but his meaning holds. Without these sanctions, North Korea’s economy would be considerably more open.
Was the United States right to reject Pyongyang’s ask? In my judgement, yes as an immediate package to be signed in Hanoi, but not as a framework for a phased process. I’m of the belief that this process with North Korea cannot lead to its total disarmament for the fundamental reason that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. What it is offering is a way to potentially constrain its program qualitatively and quantitatively, but for the United States to walk down that path with Pyongyang, it will have to think about sanctions relief at some point. For South Korea, too, if the inter-Korean process is to carry forward, at some point sanctions must be on the table.
Perhaps most unfortunately, the U.S. rejection of North Korea’s core demands meant that other appeal risk-management concessions were left unexplored. Ri noted that North Korea had offered to formalize its unilateral April 20 moratorium on the testing of long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear devices. A U.S. administration interested in nuclear risk reduction might have seized on this and encouraged North Korea to sign on to the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty or, better yet, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (which Washington has yet to ratify). This did not happen and it is difficult to imagine it happening in a context where someone as famously disdainful of international arms control regimes as John Bolton has a seat at the table.
Where do things go from here? It remains to be seen. The process has not yet totally collapsed and we are not likely to return to the days of August 2018, when threats of “fire and fury” abounded. For South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it’ll once again be time to suit-up and attempt to defibrillate this process between Pyongyang and Washington. Recall that Moon played exactly this role twice in 2018: once in May, after Trump unilaterally canceled the summit, and once in September, after Pompeo’s canceled August 2018 trip to Pyongyang. For Moon Jae-in, the success of this process is everything. He cannot allow Hanoi to represent the beginning of the end for this round of U.S.-North Korea engagement.