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Trump’s decision to “walk” from nuclear talks undercut his own diplomats

“By emphasizing his central role, the president has disempowered his top negotiators, especially the well-qualified Steve Biegun.”

by David Gilbert
Mar 1 2019, 1:29pm

Walking out of meetings may have been an effective negotiating strategy when Donald Trump was a businessman, but experts fear the president’s stunt in Hanoi Thursday just made peace with North Korea all the more elusive.

Trump abruptly ended his second summit meeting with Kim Jong Un early Thursday morning, after the dictator asked for all sanctions against North Korea to be lifted in return for dismantling a single nuclear facility. Trump didn’t specify what the U.S. asked for in return, and instead ended talks there.

“Sometimes you have to walk,” the president told reporters in Hanoi before boarding Air Force One and flying back to Washington. “This was just one of those times.”

Despite the disagreement, Trump remained positive, touting his “great relationship” with Kim and the “warmth” between the two leaders. But Trump’s burgeoning friendship with the North Korean dictator isn’t of much use in negotiations, and won't undo the damage of another disappointing summit.

“[Trump’s comments] smack of imperialist rhetoric and is the sort of thing to make the North Koreans run a mile,” Colin Alexander, an expert in political communications at Nottingham Trent University, told VICE News.

“I suspect Trump believed that all the flattery extended toward Kim would be sufficient to yield an outcome that Trump could deem a victory, but he clearly miscalculated.”

Instead, experts said the Hanoi summit exposed Trump’s lack of preparation and diplomatic shortcomings. By walking away instead of working towards a compromise, they said, the president just made it all the more difficult for the talks to achieve substantive progress let alone denuclearization.

“I suspect Trump believed that all the flattery extended toward Kim would be sufficient to yield an outcome that Trump could deem a victory, but he clearly miscalculated,” said Jonathan Pollack, a foreign policy expert at Brookings Institution.

North Korea’s rare press conference in Hanoi late Thursday night only raised more questions about the efficacy of Trump’s hardball tactics, with North Korea’s Foreign Minister denying they wanted full-sanctions relief, and pinning the failed talks on Trump.

“It became crystal clear that the U.S. is not ready to accept our proposal,” Ri said, before warning that “our proposal will never change.”

No surprises

Such stark divisions should’ve been worked out before both leaders met for their glitzy two-day summit, experts said.

The U.S. side says it wanted more than what Pyongyang was offering. In fact, it hoped to see progress on the dismantling of other secret facilities and uranium enrichment plants.

But North Korea watchers said Kim hadn't been shy in communicating what he was and wasn’t willing to give up in negotiations. In fact, Kim previewed some of his hand ahead of time, signaling in November that he would be open to dismantling Yongbyon in return for substantial sanctions concessions from the U.S.

“Team Trump should have had a plan to achieve some tangible progress. If not, don't hold a summit.”

“The problem is that we knew that's what [Kim] wanted and should have better prepared to press the North Koreans towards more reasonable interim steps,” Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told VICE News. “In the lead-up, the president was talking a lot about economic transformation, when the focus should have been on how we expected concrete, binding commitments to roll back the North Korean nuclear program.”

READ: Trump defends Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s torture of Otto Warmbier: “He didn’t know about it”

Kim’s position should’ve been obvious from the get-go, added Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan think tank. “Team Trump should have had a plan to achieve some tangible progress. If not, don't hold a summit,” Kimball said.

Unrealistic expectations weren't the only thing that made Hanoi a disappointment. By failing to give his officials the time and freedom to do the hard work needed for such a summit, Trump has both played up his role in negotiations and undercut those working on his behalf, experts said. His decision to walk out of the negotiations without a clear way forward leaves his top negotiators, including Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative to North Korea, in a trick position.

“By emphasizing his central role, the president has disempowered his top negotiators, especially the well-qualified Steve Biegun, and made it difficult for Biegun to get the DPRK to address the central issues in advance of a summit,” said Thomas Countryman, a career diplomat who served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation during the Obama administration and for one week of Trump’s administration.

Trump loves a grand gesture and would likely have wanted to announce a big win in Hanoi, but after two highly publicized summits returned limited tangible results, experts advised a fresh approach.

“Negotiating all the details of an advanced nuclear program is a huge task — the JCPOA, addressing Iran’s far more limited program, ran to over 150 pages — which is beyond the ability of any president to do alone,” Countryman said. “He should accept the fact that this process needs to be broken down into more manageable pieces.”

Cover: President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Hanoi. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.

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