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Pres­ident Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un shaking hands at Hanoi Summit. | Courtesy Wikipedia

Last week, the much-hyped second summit between Pres­ident Donald Trump and leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un came to an anti­cli­mactic end as both sides walked away without an agreement.

The North Korean side had demanded the com­plete repeal of eco­nomic sanc­tions in exchange for dis­man­tling the Yongbyon nuclear facil­ities. The United States wanted the freeze of all plu­tonium and uranium enrichment, including those in unde­clared facil­ities.

Pres­ident Trump was right not to agree to lifting sanc­tions in exchange for the largely mean­ingless closing down of the Yongbyon nuclear facil­ities.

North Korea has repeatedly pledged to shut down the aging Yongbyon complex in the past, including during the 2005 Six Party Talks and 1994 Agreed Framework. Shutting down Yongbyon would be a mostly empty gesture as North Korea has been enriching uranium at other unde­clared sites.

Nev­er­theless, the lack of results is not sur­prising.

In the first place, the North is unlikely to agree to uni­lateral dis­ar­mament by giving up its nuclear weapons, which it sees as critical to regime sur­vival. North Korea’s acute sen­si­tivity to the linkage between nuclear weapons and its sur­vival was on display last year when it reacted poorly to National Security Adviser John Bolton com­paring North Korea to Gaddafi’s Libya. Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. Eight years after dis­ar­mament, U.S. backed rebels over­threw and mur­dered Gaddafi.

As Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and Inter­na­tional Studies, notes, the North Korean nuclear program is “a half-century effort that is deeply ingrained in the state-building and national nar­rative of this country.” According to declas­sified CIA doc­u­ments, North Korea started planning for its nuclear program even before China’s first “Project 596” nuclear weapons test.

The United States also has a his­torical ten­dency to under­es­timate North Korean nego­tiators, regarding the mys­te­rious North as crazy or irra­tional. But the North has over the past several decades repeatedly exe­cuted a pre­dictable playbook of provo­cation, engagement, and delay, stretching out nego­ti­a­tions to buy time to con­tinue devel­oping its nuclear program.

Lee Sung-Yoon, Kim Koo-Korea Foun­dation Pro­fessor in Korean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts Uni­versity, argues this strategy started in the 70s when Kim Il-sung embarked on a charm offensive, receiving Western jour­nalists and giving inter­views to the Wash­ington Post. Later, Kim Jong-il wined and dined Madeleine Albright. Despite promising signs, however, nego­ti­a­tions would peter out, as hap­pened with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework of 1994 or the Six Party Talks.

While no deal is better than a deal with needless con­ces­sions, extended nego­ti­a­tions work in North Korea’s favor. After the summit, news broke that North Korea had began the recon­struction of a missile launch site. As talks con­tinue, North Korea can con­tinue fissile material and warhead pro­duction, adding to its current esti­mated 30 to 60 war­heads. According to CSIS, North Korea has approx­i­mately twenty unde­clared missile oper­ating sites.

On the bright side, however, both sides came away from the talks without bad blood, having had a “con­structive and candid exchange of opinion,” leaving the path open for future talks. The North has honored its com­mitment to halt missile launches and warhead tests, and Pres­ident Trump is hoping to lure the North with promises of “robust eco­nomic devel­opment.” Engagement is better than war, and no outcome is inevitable.

In Sep­tember 2018, Pres­ident Trump told the American people that he and Kim “fell in love” after the first Sin­gapore summit. Time will tell if the Trump-Kim rela­tionship turns out to be, as the title of the song by South Korean boy group Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) goes, “fake love.”

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Like him or not, Trump is trying to do what no Pres­ident has done before-engage with the regime in Pyongyang. If he suc­ceeds the whole world wins. The NK lead­ership are paranoid of losing their power and security, it’s going to be hard to overcome their paranoia and it won’t happen with one meeting. But the effort is not mis­placed and let’s all hope Trump suc­ceeds.

    We all win when we disable weapons that are pointing at each other and engage in trade and diplomacy. There is no last word in Diplomacy.