Many questions after Trump-Kim summit


President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's failure to reach an agreement at their summit in Vietnam has left the foreign policy world guessing at what comes next.

Trump ally Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that North Korea will have to be dealt with "one way or the other," but few are expecting an immediate return to the days of "fire and fury," when the two leaders exchanged nuclear threats.

Rather, North Korea analysts are expecting negotiations to return to the working group level, where many say they should have stayed before Trump and Kim met.

“At this point, I think the question many would have is are we going back to ‘fire and fury,’ and I don’t think so at least for the foreseeable future,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I think both sides right now have a lot invested in the diplomacy, so I don’t think we’re going to go back to military attentions tomorrow.”

Hanoi was “neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown,” Klingner added.

Negotiations between Trump and Kim unraveled as they met in Hanoi, Vietnam, for their second summit -- a spectacularly high-profile failure rarely seen on the international stage.

Typically in international negotiations, lower level aides finalize an agreement before the two leaders are ever in the same room together to avoid exactly the scenario that unfolded in Vietnam where Trump walked away without a deal.

Summits are more ceremonial, meant for signatures and pageantry after the tough negotiating is done.

But Trump has turned North Korea negotiations on their head from the very start, with the “Art of the Deal” author preferring to deal directly with Kim. The North Koreans, noticing Trump’s aides are often out of step with him, have also preferred to deal directly with Trump over his aides.

Trump’s decision to walk away without a deal in Hanoi received praise from critics who worried he would accept any deal just to claim a victory even if the terms were bad for the United States.

But the failure at the highest level of talks has led to questions about where negotiations can go next.

“It’s really not clear where we go from here,” Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told reporters. “I mean, when diplomacy at the leadership level fails, there’s not really a whole lot of rope after that.”

Trump said he walked away because North Korea was asking for all sanctions to be lifted in exchange for shuttering the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Yongbyon is North Korea’s main nuclear production site, but not its only one. Closing it would slow down North Korea's ability to produce nuclear weapons, but not entirely eliminate it.

In a rare news conference, North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho refuted Trump’s characterization, saying his side asked for some sanctions to be lifted in exchange for Yongbyon and that Trump then asked for more than Yongbyon.

A senior Trump administration official later described the negotiations in more detail, which supported Ri’s characterization as the more accurate one.

Speaking to reporters traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the official said in the week leading up to the summit, the North Koreans asked for U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed since March 2016 to be lifted.

But the official also argued Ri was “parsing” words because that amount of sanctions relief would have been worth “many, many billions of dollars” that could be used to fund weapons programs.

“What they were asking for was basically the lifting of all sanctions,” the official said. “Virtually all the sanctions, other than the ones directly related to the technology and equipment that support the weapons of mass destruction program – basically all the sanctions were imposed since March 16 of 2016.”

When Trump sat down with Kim, the official added, Trump “challenged the North Koreans to go bigger” than Yongbyon and “all in” on denuclearization.

Still, Trump, Pompeo and the official have all expressed hope that negotiations can proceed at the working level. But no specific meetings have been scheduled yet.

“We need to let the dust settle a little bit,” the official said, “but as I said, the North Korean press reports of their version of the summit that came out today in KCNA was actually quite constructive as well, and suggests to me that, like us, they feel that there’s still ample opportunity to continue the talks.”

Lawmakers are also encouraging negotiations to continue at the working level. Trump’s special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is scheduled to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors Tuesday on “details of these ongoing negotiations,” committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement.

Klingner, at Heritage, said he thinks the onus is on Pyongyang to make the next move.

“I would think it’s now kind of up to North Korea to decide whether to have some kind of altered negotiating position,” he said.

“Right now, it may either be a case of the two leaders directing their envoys to get together and try to make progress," he continued. "Or it may be a case of ... the U.S. trying get meetings at the working level and North Korea again refusing, hoping that as time passes Trump will be more desperate for a deal.”

Robert Gallucci, who led North Korea negotiations in the 1990s, said the issue heading into Hanoi was that Biegun was not given enough time to iron out differences with the North Koreans.

Biegun “was essentially given what in American football we call ‘the two-minute drill’ to try to win the game,” Gallucci said on a conference call with reporters. “And that’s very hard, to get everything settled so that the chairman and the president can roll in and just sign a piece of paper because it’s all been negotiated.

"It never would have happened like that before, and it didn’t happen that way this time,” he added.

In line with that, Gallucci said he thinks after Hanoi, working level experts from both sides need to meet “pretty quickly” to revive the momentum for negotiations.

Joel Wit, senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of North Korea monitor 38 North, said he could see two possibilities for what happens next. In one scenario, history proves that Hanoi was in fact the moment talks collapsed.

In the other, Wit said, Hanoi becomes Trump’s version of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reykjavík summit. That 1986 summit collapsed at the last moment, but eventually led to the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Wit said he would agree that working level negotiations are the path forward, but cautioned that Trump himself remains a wildcard.

“The problem here, though, is that negotiators for President Trump can reach deals, and then he doesn’t approve them,” Wit told reporters. “And I don’t know how to deal with that problem.

"That’s a little bit disconcerting to have that kind of situation," he added.

In the meantime, the United States and North Korea appear to be in a de facto “freeze-for-freeze” -- North Korea has stopped nuclear and missile tests, while large-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercises have been paused.

No official announcement has been made on the annual spring exercises since the summit, but former Defense Secretary James Mattis said last year they’d be scaled back and Trump in his post-summit press conference continued to rail against the costs.

How long the current situation is tenable without any progress on negotiations remains an open question.

“Does North Korea reach a point where they say, ‘we’re not getting satisfaction, so time to create a crisis?’ Or at some point does the U.S. say, ‘you know, we’re not resolving this, how long do we hold back on our military exercises?’” Klingner said. “Or how long do we hold back on sanctioning North Korean and Chinese entities, which we held back on to further diplomatic progress?”
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