Trump and Kim Need to Go Small

President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un left Hanoi after last month’s second U.S.-North Korea summit with their negotiating strategies apparently in tatters. Neither leader chose to pursue a remotely credible plan. Trump wanted to “go big,” sealing an abandonment of weapon of mass destruction programs in return for sanctions relief. Kim wanted sanctions to be significantly eased in return for significant but not adequate concessions.

If the two sides want to make progress, realism has to be the first priority. April is a busy month in North Korea, with the legislature meeting, the Central Committee likely to meet, and all hands on deck for the anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15. That crowded political calendar means patience may be needed while Pyongyang navigates these events. But the aim should be to get both sides to promptly re-engage in active dialogue. A deal is within reach if the parties can move past the disconnect evident in Hanoi.

The failure of the Hanoi talks reflects a mix of overreach, intransigence, and misunderstanding on both sides. Trump said that Kim requested the lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions “in their entirety.” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho retorted at a late-night press conference that Kim had only asked for five of 11 sets of sanctions to go. Trump made clear that the price of extensive sanctions relief was much higher than North Korea’s offer to close down its Yongbyon nuclear research complex. Ri called North Korea’s offer the most it could give at the “current level of trust between the two countries.”

One deal asked Washington to go well past its comfort zone on sanctions relief in return for measured steps on denuclearization, and another asked Pyongyang to go well past its comfort zone on denuclearization in return for sanctions relief that would only be implemented after it had given Washington what it most wanted. Those overambitious, imbalanced deals left both parties empty-handed.

Assigning blame for the Hanoi failure is unhelpful. In South Korea, which has made huge efforts to bring Pyongyang and Washington to the table but faces very real limits to its influence, some government officials privately (and angrily) hold the United States responsible. But North Korea is also culpable. Its call for major sanctions relief represented a gross misreading of the atmosphere in Washington. Members of the U.S. Congress and the press were already criticizing Trump for being too cozy with Kim and suggesting that, faced with potential political and legal troubles at home, he risked short-selling U.S. interests for the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough.

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