Volume 11, Issue 5, March 20, 2019
The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended abruptly in Hanoi without any agreement on the next steps to advance the shared goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula. While both Trump and Kim described the meeting as valuable and appeared committed to continuing dialogue, the future of the diplomatic process is unclear. The summit ended without a plan for future talks and Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s vice minister for foreign affairs said March 15 that Pyongyang is considering halting the diplomatic process because Kim “may have lost the will” to continue negotiations.
Since the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year, the negotiating process has not yielded concrete results that reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and put it on a path to full denuclearization. Nevertheless, diplomacy remains the best option for addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis. It is critical that the Trump administration does not squander the opportunity for engagement with Pyongyang.
But to meaningfully advance the goal of denuclearization and reduce the risk of conflict in the region, the two sides will need to establish a more effective and sustained negotiating process and recognize that an incremental, action-for-action approach provides the best pathway for progress.
What Happened in Hanoi?
Going into the Feb. 27-28 Hanoi summit, it was clear that gaps remained between the U.S. and North Korean positions on a deal involving reciprocal, concrete steps on denuclearization in exchange for actions addressing Pyongyang’s economic and security concerns. Even though the original U.S. schedule for Feb. 28 included a signing ceremony—suggesting that the Trump administration anticipated that reaching some type of agreement may have been possible— it is not clear if the ceremony referred to a limited deal trading denuclearization steps for U.S. actions or another set of issues. It also appears that the two sides were prepared to discuss a declaration ending the Korean War and the opening of joint liaison offices during the summit meeting.
While it is difficult to assess with any certainty what happened at Hanoi, it appears that both Trump and Kim may have attempted to expand the scope of the discussions, rather than focusing on bridging gaps between their negotiating teams on a more modest step toward the shared goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding.
Trump, in his news conference following the talks, attributed the failure to reach an agreement on North Korea’s demand that the United States lift sanctions “in their entirety” in return for partial steps toward denuclearization. Trump said he “had to walk away” because the United States “couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
In a news conference following the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Kim proposed dismantling fissile material production capabilities at Yongbyon under U.S. monitoring and formalizing North Korea’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing in exchange for relief from UN Security Council sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017 that “hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people.” But Trump insisted North Korea take “one more step” on denuclearization, which North Korea appeared unprepared to discuss at the summit and was not acceptable to Kim.
The extent of the sanctions relief that North Korea wanted from the United States was significant. It is unclear if Kim expected Trump to agree to his demands or if the proposal was just a starting point for further bargaining. Pyongyang’s proposal, however, is further evidence that North Korea is primarily focused on receiving sanctions relief early in the process and does indicate that there is space to pursue a limited deal trading steps at Yongbyon for economic relief.
While the Trump administration has not yet publicly provided a detailed description of its proposal, the United States appeared focused on reaching a more specific agreement with North Korea on the overarching goals of the negotiating process, including a shared definition of denuclearization, and then pursuing incremental steps that roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and that advance peacebuilding. A senior State Department official later told press Feb. 28 that Trump urged Kim to go “all in,” which may be referring to Kim’s reluctance to negotiate in further detail on a definition of denuclearization and the end goals.
The Trump administration has also conditioned sanctions relief on completion of the denuclearization process. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun reiterated again March 11 at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that “the lifting of sanctions will come with attaining” the goal of fully verified denuclearization.
North Korea has flatly rejected the Trump administration’s approach, which is unsurprising given the delay in sanctions relief. Most recently Choe said in her March 15 news conference that North Korea has “no intention to yield to U.S. demands” and said Pyongyang is not willing to “engage in negotiations of this kind.”
While no new measures were agreed to in Hanoi, Trump said Kim pledged to continue abiding by its April 2018 moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests and that the United States would continue to modify joint military exercises with South Korea.
Following Trump’s statement, the United States and South Korea formally announced March 3 that two annual exercises that North Korea views as provocative, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, would be terminated, but North Korea has raised the possibility of resuming long-range missile testing. In her March 15 news conference, Choe said North Korea may resume intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches unless the United States is willing to take reciprocal actions. Satellite imagery also shows that North Korea has reconstructed elements of the Sohae Satellite Launch facility that were dismantled last year. North Korea may be signaling that its patience with the negotiations is limited and that it expects more from the United States earlier in the process.
Bridging the Gaps
The Hanoi summit highlighted two significant gaps between the U.S. and North Korean approaches to the negotiating process.
First, the Trump administration appears to be seeking a more detailed understanding of the end-state of negotiations before agreeing on incremental steps to advance toward those goals. It is clear for instance that Trump and Kim have different understandings of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” a goal agreed to at their first meeting in Singapore.
The definitional differences are well-documented, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in July 2018 that despite agreeing on “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” the two countries do not have a shared understanding of the term. The United States is focused on verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, nuclear-capable delivery systems, and the means of production. North Korea’s definition is much more expansive and includes the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from the region, the removal of U.S. troops trained on nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, and an end to nuclear threats.
Post-Hanoi, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton widened the gap further by saying March 3 that the United States considers dismantlement of North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs as elements of denuclearization. Trump has at times referenced that the negotiations would cover these programs but typically U.S. officials have limited “denuclearization” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its nuclear-capable delivery systems.
There is value to agreeing on the scope of the talks early in the process. An agreed-upon end-state allows both sides to develop roadmaps and incremental steps toward the goal. It also demonstrates that their interests will be addressed as part of the process. A shared understanding of the scope and envisioned outcome can also help maintain momentum.
There is, however, a risk—particularly if the United States has expanded the definition of denuclearization to include chemical and biological weapons—that the United States and North Korea could get bogged down in negotiating the details of the end-state and jeopardize the opportunity to reduce the risk of conflict in the region and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As the negotiating teams pursue an agreement on an end-state, it would be in the interests of both sides to negotiate additional confidence-building measures that demonstrate good faith in the diplomatic process and maintain momentum.
A second gap relates to the timing of sanctions relief during the negotiating process. Ri made clear in his post-Hanoi news conference that North Korea is prioritizing receiving relief—particularly from UN sanctions targeting sectors of the economy—early in the process and in exchange for steps on denuclearization. This proposal is also consistent with Kim’s focus on economic improvement in his 2019 New Years Day address.
The United States, however, has consistently stated that sanctions relief will only come late in the process, once verifiable denuclearization is complete. U.S. officials, however, have said that the Trump administration is willing to take other steps in parallel with North Korean actions. Biegun said March 11 that there are “other areas that we can explore outside of the lifting of sanctions” to advance the Singapore summit goals.
It is unclear if the U.S. position on holding sanctions relief under the end of the process is absolute or if it is open to negotiating limited relief earlier in the process. While reserving relief from some of the more significant sanctions until verifiable denuclearization is complete could serve as an incentive for Pyongyang to see the process through, the Trump administration should consider allowing limited, reversible relief earlier in the process to address North Korea’s more pressing economic interests. This could be accomplished through waivers that would be reversible in the event that negotiations collapse. The Obama administration took a similar approach in negotiating with Iran: waiving select sanctions in return for certain nuclear restrictions as part of an interim deal while holding out relief from the more significant sanctions until a comprehensive agreement was negotiated and Iran implemented its nuclear commitments.
The Value of a Step-by-Step Approach
While there appears to be disagreement over whether to begin with a more detailed definition of the end-state of negotiations, both the United States and North Korea still appear to be willing to work in phases toward that goal. The North Koreans have stated their preference for a step-by-step approach and the Trump administration appears to endorse incremental, parallel actions by both sides (excluding sanctions relief) to work toward the more detailed, agreed-upon goals of the process.
Irrespective of whether it is described as an incremental or step-by-step approach, there is value in working in phases. Trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region. Additionally, drawn-out talks could ultimately play in North Korea’s favor, as it would reap the benefits of engaging in negotiations, while simultaneously expanding its nuclear weapons program.
The time factor also plays against negotiating a more comprehensive agreement. The U.S. presidential election in 2020 and the South Korean presidential election in 2022 provide a narrow window of opportunity to advance the diplomatic process. A step-by-step process stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.
A step-for-step approach with the end goals of complete, verifiable denuclearization and regional stability stands a greater chance of achieving concrete results that reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the threat of conflict. Unlike a comprehensive "big" deal, a step-by-step approach builds confidence in the process and, if structured correctly, demonstrates to Kim that the survival of North Korea is not dependent on a nuclear arsenal.
Heading into the Hanoi summit, it appeared that a deal trading verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon in exchange for U.S. actions—perhaps opening liaison offices and ending the Korean War—was under discussion at the working level. Post-Hanoi, it would be valuable for the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams to pick up on these discussions and pursue such an agreement—perhaps with the addition of limited sanctions relief—to advance the goals of both sides.
For the United States, verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program and decreasing its fissile material production. The Yongbyon nuclear complex includes a uranium enrichment plant and the 5MWe reactor and reprocessing facility, which North Korea used to produce plutonium. There are a number of other facilities on-site, including a small research reactor (the IRT-2000 Nuclear Research Reactor), an isotope production laboratory, and a new experimental 20-30 MWe light-water reactor, which is still under construction.
If an agreement were to be reached for North Korea to dismantle all of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, experts assess it would effectively end its weapons-grade plutonium production and significantly curb but likely not end its uranium enrichment, as Pyongyang has built other covert uranium enrichment sites.
Although North Korea offered only to allow U.S. inspectors into Yongbyon in its Hanoi proposal, the United States should press for the International Atomic Energy Agency to be involved in verifiably halting and dismantling nuclear facilities to increase transparency and legitimacy and to set a better precedent for any similar inspections in the future.
These initial steps would build confidence in the diplomatic process, serve as an important test of Kim’s intentions, and would help ensure that North Korea could not expand its arsenal while the longer-term negotiations and denuclearization steps continue.
In return for the verifiable dismantlement of Yongbyon, the United States should offer a package that addresses North Korea’s economic and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s concessions. Even if North Korea puts dismantlement of the entirety of the Yongbyon complex on the table and is willing to allow international inspectors, lifting the bulk of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the Security Council in 2016 and 2017 is an unreasonable demand. Instead, the Trump administration could offer limited relief from select U.S. and UN measures. As part of that package, the United States could include waivers for inter-Korean projects that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has prioritized but are stalled due to U.S. sanctions. Allowing these projects to go forward would show support for South Korea and contribute to advancing the inter-Korean relationship. In addition, the United States could offer other inducements, such as an end-of-war declaration and pursuing liaison offices that would contribute to regional stability.
It will take time to negotiate the details of an agreement trading Yongbyon dismantlement in return for a limited sanctions relief deal. In the meantime, North Korea should reiterate that it remains committed to its voluntary moratorium on nuclear and missile testing to help retain confidence in the diplomatic process.
The Importance of an Effective Process
Reaching an agreement on the next steps and defining the goals of the Singapore summit will require establishing an effective process for negotiations going forward. As a first step, this must include transitioning talks from the head-of-state level to the working-level negotiating teams.
While beginning the negotiations at the head-of-state level may have been a necessary step to signal to North Korea that Washington was willing to transform its relationship with Pyongyang, the details of a deal to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula are too complex for Trump and Kim to resolve themselves.
Unfortunately, neither the Singapore summit nor the Hanoi summit established an effective process to engage in the detailed discussions necessary to agree on concrete steps to advance the Singapore summit goals. While working-level meetings did commence just ahead of the summit in Hanoi, ultimately there was not enough time for negotiators to bridge gaps in positions and reach agreement. U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams should commit to meet consistently and often to reach agreement on a step-for-step deal.
Moving forward, Trump should empower Biegun and his team to engage in regular, detailed discussions with the North Korean team and make clear that another head-of-state summit will not take place absent agreed-upon, concrete steps by North Korea that advance denuclearization alongside corresponding U.S. actions.
If the Trump administration chooses to pursue a step-by-step approach, the U.S. negotiating team must also develop a roadmap for a comprehensive process. Such a roadmap can help demonstrate to the North Koreans that the United States is embedding verifiable denuclearization as part of a broader process that transforms the U.S-North Korean relationship. It will also help ensure that the United States retains sufficient leverage to incentivize North Korea to continue taking steps toward denuclearization.
Working-level negotiations will also function better with consistent messaging by the administration so that negotiators are not undercut by conflicting statements from senior officials. Divergent descriptions of the U.S. negotiating positions not only complicate the work of U.S. negotiators but will also make it more difficult for North Koreans to trust that positions expressed at lower levels reflect Trump’s views.
Establishing an effective diplomatic process should also include robust administration outreach to Congress. As past negotiations with North Korea have shown, the support of Congress, or lack thereof, can play an influential role in the success or failure of diplomacy. If Congress is not briefed on the negotiations and on the administration’s strategy, it increases the likelihood that Congress may take steps that complicate talks or reduce Trump’s flexibility to negotiate.
The failure of the Hanoi summit to produce tangible steps to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding is disappointing but it is not a disaster. Both Trump and Kim characterized the meeting as useful and the two countries appear to remain committed to pursuing diplomacy.
The window of opportunity for negotiations, however, will not remain open indefinitely. The United States has a unique opportunity to reduce the risk posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and to verifiably roll it back. Doing so, however, will require Trump to pursue reciprocal, step-by-step actions toward denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy; and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant