President Trump was right to walk away from his summit with Kim Jong-un rather than accept a bad nuclear agreement, but the outcome underscores that he was bamboozled last year at his first summit with Kim. Whatever genius Trump sees in the mirror, “the art of the deal” is not his thing.
At this meeting, Kim apparently sought a full end to sanctions on North Korea in exchange for closing only some nuclear sites. That was not a good deal, and Trump was right to walk rather than accept it.
“Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that,” Trump said, adding: “Sometimes you have to walk.”
President Reagan famously marched out of a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, rather than accept an arms control agreement with Russia that he regarded as flawed. A year later the Russians returned with better terms and a deal was made — and we can all hope that something similar will happen this time.
Still, there are significant risks ahead. The most important is that North Korea may return to testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, for that would mark a huge escalation of tensions and renewed concerns about brinkmanship and war.
Unfortunately, North Korea is an otherwise unimportant country that gets attention only when it behaves provocatively. So its leaders have learned that their best leverage is to fire missiles, detonate warheads, or start up nuclear complexes.
While Trump was right to walk in this case, he also seems to have played his hand poorly in the run-up to the summit. In particular, he signaled that he eagerly wanted a deal and that “fantastic success” was likely, all of which probably led Kim to raise demands in the belief that Trump would fold.
With normal presidents, summit deals are largely agreed upon ahead of time. As one veteran diplomat put it, presidents pull rabbits out of hats, after diplomats have worked diligently ahead of time to stuff the rabbits into the hats.
But Trump has never had much patience for that meticulous diplomatic process, instead placing excessive faith in breakthroughs arising from personal relationships — and his faith was clearly misplaced
The North Korean side had refused to hash out the summit outcome in advance with the highly regarded U.S. special envoy, Stephen Biegun, presumably because Kim thought that he could outfox Trump in person in Hanoi the way he had in Singapore nine months ago.
The collapse of the latest talks also underscores how misguided Trump was at that earlier meeting. He didn’t understand that Kim uses “denuclearization” to mean something different than the meaning in the United States, and he gave Kim the enormous gift of legitimacy that comes with a summit, without getting anything comparable in return.
It is also distasteful to see Trump praising Kim and referring to him as “my friend” and a “great leader,” and, last year, asserting that Kim had sent him “beautiful letters” and that “we fell in love.” It’s perfectly appropriate to engage with ruthless dictators, but fawning over them is a betrayal of our values.
In Vietnam, Trump might also have shown Kim what freedom of the press looks like. Instead, the White House barred four American reporters from a dinner after two of them had shouted questions for Trump.
Still, if the risk is of a return to high tensions ahead, it’s also possible to foresee a path that over time does make progress with North Korea. I tend to agree with skeptics who believe that Kim has zero intention of ever giving up his nuclear weapons stockpile — that’s what North Koreans told me on my last visit to the country in 2017 — but there is still room for diplomacy that leaves the world better off.
In particular, Kim seems willing to reach a bargain on continuing his moratorium on testing warheads and missiles and on freezing production of nuclear fuel at his complex on Yongbyon, and those are worthy goals if the price is not too high. A reasonable price would be relaxation of sanctions on inter-Korean projects, such as South Korean manufacturing, tourism and rail projects in North Korea.
Those inter-Korean initiatives also have value in that they may over time help normalize North Korea, give it a stake in the outside world, and undermine the regime’s authority.
That kind of limited deal should be an aim of diplomacy going forward, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who helped start the peace process between North Korea and the West — is well placed to pursue it, with American backing.
Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, writes about human rights, women’s rights, health, global affairs.