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Trump Was Right To Walk Away From Kim Jong-un’s Bad Deal


President Trump ended his two-day summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without signing any agreement on either the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or a peace announcement. Mainstream U.S. media predictably blame President Trump for this “failure.”

NBC’s post-summit analysis says “Trump lost big at the North Korea nuclear summit.” The summit was mocked as a #Trumpfail on social media.

Organizations that push for nuclear disarmament also felt a great let-down. Akira Kawasaki, a Japanese Nobel Peace laureate and a key member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says, “It is little wonder these negotiations broke down after Trump has spent more time in office blowing up nuclear treaties than building them.” But as more detail about the negotiations emerge, it looks like President Trump made the right decision to walk away.

The World and Kim Misread Trump

President Trump went into the summit sounding very upbeat and hopeful. He tweeted, “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong-un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”

Such positivity could be part of Trump’s negotiation tactics––sweet-talking the other side into moving closer to striking a deal, or because of his faith in a top-down and personal approach to diplomacy. Whatever the reasons behind Trump’s optimism, the rest of the world assumed Trump was eager to sign a deal, maybe any deal, as a distraction from Michael Cohen’s testimony.

Kim probably thought Trump’s pleasant talk and domestic challenges from Democrats meant that North Korea had leverage over the United States. So Kim asked the impossible. According to Trump, Kim wanted the United States to lift its economic sanctions against North Korea in its entirety, in exchange for Pyongyang’s decommissioning its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

While decommissioning the Yongbyon nuclear facility would have been a welcomed move, it’s far from the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” goal the Trump administration laid out. It wouldn’t even relieve North Korea’s military threat to U.S. and South Korean forces because North Korea has at least 20 undeclared missile operating bases. Therefore, what Kim presented was an unacceptably bad deal.

In response, Trump did the unthinkable––he walked away from the negotiation, cancelled the working lunch (Kim had to eat alone), and moved up the scheduled press conference. Trump told the press that “they [North Korea] 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, so we continue to work and we’ll see. But we had to walk away from that particular suggestion.”

Being able and willing to walk away is an effective negotiation tactic. This lets the other side know where you draw the line and when they have pushed too far. This tactic only works if you stick to your bottom line and are willing to accept no deal as an outcome.

Had Trump been a career politician, he probably wouldn’t have walked away. For a career politician, the pressure to sign something after a highly visible meeting is too high to ignore. A typical politician, out of sheer political calculations, would have at least signed a peace declaration to show the world, especially with an eye to his domestic audience, that he has accomplished something.

But a peace declaration is meaningless at this point. The Korean Peninsula will not have peace until North Korea gives up all of its nuclear weapons. It’s good Trump is not a career politician. We ought to give him credit where credit is due––it takes courage to walk away from a bad deal, to resist the urge to do something. Had he agreed to Kim’s demand, he would be blamed for being too soft, for making a terrible deal by giving away the farm and for being played by a young dictator.

North Korea Learned a Lesson Here; So Should Trump

It seems Kim has learned a lesson. Eight hours after President Trump left Hanoi, North Korea put on a hastily arranged press conference and Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho insisted that “North Korea hadn’t sought the removal of all sanctions in return for the dismantling of Yongbyon.” Of course he blamed the United States for walking away from North Korea’s “reasonable” offer in exchange for “partial” sanction relief.

The fact that Pyongyang thought it was necessary to put on a press conference so soon and emphasized that it wanted only “partial” sanction relief leads me to believe this is Kim sending a diplomatic signal to the United States that he is open to modifying his last offer and the door to future negotiations remains open.

While Trump deserves credit for rejecting a bad deal, he can learn from this experience as well. He should realize that there is a limit to personal diplomacy. Unlike a corporate deal, international negotiations are complex and time-consuming. They usually build upon incremental success. The second summit took place a little too soon, only eight months after the first summit at Singapore, and there was little progress in the interim.

As I said before, Kim hasn’t done much to warrant a second summit. Although Trump walked away, he needs to understand that every time he sits down with Kim Jong-un as an equal on the world stage, it is a boost for Kim’s political capital. Trump shouldn’t give Kim a third opportunity like this unless Pyongyang demonstrates significant progress towards denuclearization.

There is a lesson for China as well. Although China wasn’t part of the Hanoi summit, China had a front-row seat for Trump’s negotiation style. Trump approached the U.S.-China trade negotiation in a similar way. On the one hand, Trump keeps up the pressure of imposing higher tariffs on Chinese goods, which turned out to be the only way to drag China to the negotiation table. On the other hand, Trump invested in building a personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and showered Xi with undeserved flattery, just like Trump did to Kim.

There is a summit between Trump and Xi in the works to cement the final U.S.-China deal. But if China thinks all it has to do is to buy more U.S. soybeans and call it a day, it needs to rethink its approach and offer after witnessing the Hanoi summit. Trump never lets flattery and pleasantry stop him from walking away from bad deals. China has resisted previous calls to take concrete steps to stop intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.  Since this is the United States’s biggest concern, China cannot keep saying no if it wants to end the U.S.-China trade war.

The Future of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

Before the U.S.-North Korea summit, I spoke to Kawasaki. He was in Hanoi representing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. ICAN’s biggest achievement so far was to get the United Nations to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July 2017. It hopes to create a peaceful world by asking all governments to completely eliminate nuclear weapons.

So far the treaty has 70 signatories and 21 state partiesbut it will enter into legal force only after at least 50 nations have signed and ratified it. Notably, none of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, including the United States, Russia, and China, have either signed or ratified the treaty. Kawasaki’s home country, Japan, an American ally, hasn’t signed the treaty either because it relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for protection from North Korea.

Kawasaki is clearly disappointed with the outcome of the Hanoi Summit. He believes denuclearization of the Korean peninsula “cannot be left with these two temperamental men [Trump and Kim],” but “a real plan rooted in the international community and treaties like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

I admire Kawaski’s work, but I am not sure if the treaty he and ICAN push is the right solution. While Trump and Kim were having denuclearization talks in Hanoi, two other nuclear powerhouses, India and Pakistan, were and still are engaging in an escalating conflict that involves the loss of lives, the capture of a pilot, and verbal threats of deploying nuclear weapons if the other side doesn’t back down. Neither country signed or ratified the ICAN treaty. How can a nuclear weapon treaty be effective when all nuclear powers stay outside of it?

A better approach towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as suggested by Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council, is for the United States to ratchet up economic sanctions, and neutralize threats from North Korea’s strategic arsenals, while keeping diplomatic negotiations going.

I share Kawasaki’s deep concern about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons. The images and stories from atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should motivate all of us to work towards a world without nuclear weapons. To get there, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a must.