President Trump Pulling the Plug On the Hanoi Summit Was Necessary To Progress

Screengrab from

Screengrab from


The Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean stongman Kim Jong Un ended much quicker than usual when the US delegation headed by President Trump decided that no new deal was possible within the context of that Kim wanted and what Trump was prepared to give up.


There were signs, around midday, that things were starting to go sideways.

A working lunch between the two negotiating teams was scrapped. So was a ceremony intended to mark the signing of a joint agreement between the two countries. Plans for setting up a liaison office in North Korea, which the two leaders discussed in front of reporters on Wednesday, never materialized.

At around 12:45 p.m. Hanoi time, it became clear the summit was ending with no deal when the White House announced a “program change” and moved up the press conference by two hours, telling reporters the president would appear at 2:00 p.m. rather than at 4:00 p.m. as initially planned. Audible murmurs spread through the buses where the White House press corps was corralled en route to the press conference.

The president had teased the idea that the summit would yield big results. But leaving without a deal was always an option under consideration, according to a senior administration official.

Before the summit, the United States special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, told the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Trump needed to be able to walk away without a deal, this official said.

The president did just that. He did not appear pleased about the course change, speaking in a monotone and repeatedly kicking questions over to Pompeo.

Trump has reveled in upending the expectations of the smart set in Washington since he crashed onto the political scene three and a half years ago, and he did that again on Thursday. Experts had predicted, and some of his own aides had feared, that the president, eager to avert attention from ballooning domestic troubles, which flared Wednesday as Cohen was decrying him as a con man, a liar and a cheat back in Washington — would trade major concessions for empty promises.

He didn’t.

“It was about the sanctions,” Trump said. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted, in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that. … We had to walk away from that particular suggestion.”


There has been a lot of criticism of the decision to embark on this summit and the results. Some of it principled, a great deal of it the typical OrangeManBad crap from people who would would be happy to see a nuclear war with North Korea if it meant they could tweet something disparaging about Trump. I don’t see this as a loss for anyone on our side. I don’t think anyone knows enough about the power linkages in Pyongyang to evaluate the extent to which Kim needed to bring home sanctions relief.

Let me talk you through my reasoning.

This is not an ordinary negotiation

During most summits, staff works for months with their counterparts hammering out an agreement. There is a summit. The principals get together, eat, drink, sign the agreement, have a press conference, shake hands, and leave. This can’t work with North Korea–and we have 50 years of failed diplomacy to prove that point–because no one on staff is going to deviate from the party line without ending up dead or wishing they were dead. The only guy who can speak for North Korea is Kim and spending time speaking to anyone else is basically wasted. If we are going to move forward with North Korea, these no-immediate-result confidence building meetings between the US president and Kim will probably need to become the norm.

The situation with North Korea has stabilized

There have been no missile tests or nuclear tests since November 28, 2017. This is significant.

Sanctions are working

North Korea’s key demand was to have sanctions removed. There is some disagreement between what the North Koreans are saying and the US team is saying. The North Koreans say that they were willing to trade dismantling the Yongbyon reactor for repealing the last five UNSCR sanctions.


This is from the Washington Post, Why Kim Jong Un wants relief from ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions.

Last July, the Seoul-based Bank of Korea estimated the North Korean economy had seen its biggest decline in two decades, with the country’s real annual gross domestic product falling by 3.5 percent in 2017. Notably, the Bank of Korea estimated North Korea’s exports declined 37.2 percent in a single year.

Measuring economic activity in North Korea is a difficult process — the Bank of Korea is forced to rely on things like satellite imagery to make its estimates — and experts often have disputed over how to interpret what limited data there is. Not all estimates have been so negative, with some suggestions that North Korea’s illicit economic activity may be helping to keep the economy stable despite sanctions.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, recently published an overview of North Korea’s economy ahead of the Hanoi summit. Looking at things like gasoline prices and the exchange rate for the North Korean won using data compiled by DailyNK, a Seoul-based news service with contacts inside North Korea, Katzeff Silberstein came to a conclusion that was negative, though not apocalyptic.

Winston Churchill was right

Jaw-jaw, he said, is better than war-war. For most of my adult life my profession involved killing people and breaking things. But that was tempered with the knowledge that when you engage in military conflict, the enemy gets a vote and a little bit of bad luck can get a lot of your guys killed. As long as we are talking and North Korea has put a moratorium on testing missiles and nukes, we are ahead. So long as sanctions are in place, he is losing. If face to face meetings can convince Kim that the ROK army is not crossing the DMZ headed north the day after denuclearization, a real deal might be possible. If war does become necessary, Kim will be weaker a year from now than he is now, and he’s weaker now than he was on January 20, 2017.


OrangeManBad is actually a national security philosophy

The same arms control experts that were proven wrong for a decade or so, lambasted Trump for threatening Kim with war and for meeting with Kim. The claimed Trump was going to give away everything, up until yesterday, and now they are saying Pompeo and State just weren’t up to understanding the nuances of the negotiations and that caused a break down.

For instance, this is the WaPo’s David Nakamura taking dictation from some former Obama administration lackey a couple of days ago:

This is a guy who fancies himself an arms control guru even if it means relying upon North Korea’s spin of the meeting (think about that, this douchenozzle can either trust Mike Pompeo or the North Korea press service, guess which he chooses?)

Sometimes you do have to walk away

There is no doubt that Trump wanted a PR victory from this summit as much as he wanted significant concessions. Nothing wrong with that, that’s why we have summits. The 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev broke down when Reagan couldn’t get a successful deal. I think that Kim also wanted a victory and may very well need in more than Trump needed one.


The fact that this didn’t succeed is no sign of anything other than both sides now have a better understanding of each other and their opposite’s position. In the larger scheme, that is good. Kim has invested quite a bit of capital in this relationship and odds are he’d rather not walk away for good. Regardless, as Churchill said…

Otto Warmbier

I understand why some folks are upset over Trump’s refusal to direct accuse Kim of having knowledge of how Otto Warbier was being treated (read bonchie’s Trump’s Comments on Otto Warmbier were Garbage and so are the Excuses) but I don’t agree with them. It isn’t a great idea to make foreign policy personal. Nations sometimes do it (like the War of Jenkins’s Ear) but it is rarely wise. Giving Kim plausible deniability as to his person culpability for Warmbier’s treatment is a null set. This is not unprecedented. At no point in his presidency did Reagan ever accuse Gorbachev of personal involvement in the running of Soviet gulags and psychiatric hospitals. No president ever accused Leonid Brezhnev of personal involvment in the assassination of Georgi Markov. Were the culpable? Sure. But the stakes then, as now, were just too great to cast your negotiating counterpart as a run of the mill criminal. If Trump had blamed Kim personally, why was he meeting with him to begin with? And would Kim ever again negotiate with the man who’d labeled him as a torturer and murderer? Ironically, a lot of the people who are now making an issue of this would be making an issue of Trump publicly blaming Kim because OrangeManBad.


Bottom line
As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

North Korea has been an intractable problem since 1953. It is the single place in the world where we could be dragged into something approaching World War III based solely on the actions of another party. It has taken 65 years for North Korea’s norms of behavior to institutionalized and for the relationship between the US and DPRK to gel. Those things are not going to change quickly without using lots of big bombs.

In the specific case of the Hanoi summit, we gave up nothing. Neither did the North Koreans. Both Trump and Kim swallowed a little pride over the truncated meeting because they both thought a favorable deal of some kind was possible, but Trump walked away rather than remove some sanctions that he knows he may never get back. That is good. If Trump and Kim meet again, there probably will be measurable progress. And that is good. We are still talking and not shooting. And that is good because time is really on our side.

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