Here is the most glaring takeaway from the collapse of the North Korea summit in Hanoi: You can’t negotiate with a wily dictator as if he were a real-estate mogul in New York.
President Donald Trump has famously touted his personal relationships with autocrats as the prelude to great deals. “We fell in love,” he said of the half-dozen or so “beautiful letters” he received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Clearly, love was insufficient.
The president and his team appeared blindsided by the gap between the U.S. and North Korean positions at his second summit with Kim. Trump stated at a news conference that Kim wanted all sanctions removed against his country in return for dismantling a key nuclear complex at Yongbyon. But that deal would have left North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, missiles, and other production facilities still standing.
North Korea’s foreign minister later claimed that North Korea only sought partial sanctions relief, but the gap was still clearly unbridgeable. With all or most sanctions lifted, U.S. leverage to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenal would have shrunk.
So, no matter how much Trump may have wanted to distract attention from the Michael Cohen hearings in Washington, he had no choice but “to walk” away from Kim’s offer. The gulf between him and the North Korean leader was wider than the 6,800 miles that separate Washington and Pyongyang.
How could Trump have gotten his expectations so wrong?
The answer clearly revolves around Trump’s deep belief that his personal relationships and “brilliance” are sufficient to outwit tough autocrats. The president was reportedly warned about Kim’s insistence on major sanctions relief, but believed he could persuade the dictator to shift positions.
“This entire diplomatic process is distinctive because of President Trump and North Korea’s decision-making at the top level,” says Scott Snyder, the Council on Foreign Relations expert on North Korea. “The North Koreans (hoped) to go to the top and get what they want from Trump.”
As the Hanoi debacle displayed with such drama, personal diplomacy couldn’t budge the North Korean. Less clear is whether Trump grasps the need to revamp his negotiating approach.
That approach had already proved lacking at Trump’s first summit with Kim, in Singapore in June 2018. Despite the hoopla, that summit failed to produce any concrete results on or road map toward denuclearization. The two sides have not even agreed yet on the meaning of that term, or whether it requires the elimination of all of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.
As recently as the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence claimed that Kim had committed to complete denuclearization of North Korea. That statement was false.
Yet, even with lowered expectations for the Hanoi summit, the White House assumed some kind of deal would be reached. The U.S. side had already scheduled a goodbye lunch and signing ceremony. (Both were canceled.) U.S. officials had leaked reports to the media that Pyongyang would pledge to close the Yongbyon complex in return for a modest relaxation of some economic sanctions — and the signing of a peace declaration between the U.S. and North Korea.
Even that deal would have involved large concessions to Kim, since a peace declaration would have relaxed pressure on Pyongyang to make further moves toward denuclearization.
However, in Hanoi, Kim’s demand for lifting of all or most sanctions in return for inadequate concessions revealed that the two sides were operating in totally different worlds.
Under any previous presidency, a U.S. negotiating team would at least have worked out a basic framework before a president traveled all the way to Asia. But Trump devalues experts and detailed preparation. As he’s said, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
The limits to that approach became painfully clear in Hanoi.
Perhaps the North Korean leader thought Trump’s yen for a deal would impel him to accept a wildly insufficient offer. Kim made clear he preferred dealing with Trump than meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Moreover, Trump’s chief North Korea negotiator, Stephen Biegun, is a businessman who had no prior experience with complex North Korea dealings. The North Koreans, on the other hand, have been running rings around U.S. leaders for years.
The question now is whether Trump will revise his approach, broaden his team, and recognize the difference between geopolitical deals and real-estate manipulations. The president’s effusive praise of Kim has already lowered global pressure on Pyongyang for nuclear concessions.
Having expended enormous political capital on two summits, the president now faces a long slog of U.S.-North Korea talks that may never lead to full denuclearization of that country. His personal relationship with Kim may help keep those talks alive. But unless he realizes the limits of personal diplomacy, he will continue to get played.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.