Trump was correct to describe denuclearization last June as a lengthy “process” that one summit meeting could not achieve. However, the second summit, in Hanoi at the end of February 2019, again showed that personal diplomacy divorced from an engagement process that incorporates flexibility and give-and-take raises the risk of failure. The Hanoi summit ended early without agreement, as Trump was unwilling to end sanctions in return for the closing of North Korea’s main (but not only) nuclear enrichment plant at Yongbyon. As it is, Trump played with a weak hand: Besieged by investigations at home, and the riveting public testimony of Michael Cohen that coincided with the summit, Trump may have had less maneuvering room than usual to make a deal. (Trump acknowledged the impact, saying: “I think having a fake hearing like that and having it in the middle of this very important summit is really a terrible thing.”)
Had a better process preceded the summit, agreement might have been possible step-by-step, including time points for establishing diplomatic relations, freezing or reducing North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a verifiable way, and gradually easing US and South Korean sanctions. Indeed, early reports indicate that Kim might have been open to establishing a US liaison office in Pyongyang.
In short, there is no objective reason why these talks should have failed. The North Koreans believed that after the first summit in Singapore, they had taken the first steps in confidence building, enough to justify an end to sanctions, and some US analysts agreed. But Trump’s hard-line advisers, wedded to the demand for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CVID), saw to it that the administration added to sanctions and rejected South Korean proposals for easing their own. (“They do nothing without our approval,” said Trump) In a sense, Pompeo and Bolton may have sabotaged the talks.
On the eve of the second summit, Donald Trump said: “I don’t want to rush anybody. I just don’t want testing. As long as there is no testing, we’re happy.” Well, Kim made him happy; the North’s nuclear weapons and missile testing moratorium will continue. But that left Kim’s entire bomb and missile inventory intact, allowed for accumulation of more fissile material, and also accepted that North Korea will continue research and development of nuclear weapons and missiles of various ranges. Testing, of course, is essential to determining the reliability of weapons, but for now, as Kim has said, the DPRK is confident it has the nuclear and missile strength it needs.
Hard to say where we go from here. Both sides have adopted an all-or-nothing approach, which probably means that while the North Koreans forego weapons tests, they will continue to refine the weapons they have and the Americans will persist with sanctions that are not working and that the Russians and Chinese are undermining. Denuclearization, however understood, is more remote than ever.