We’ll return to the old multi-story format tonight in order to touch on some stories that have been neglected throughout the week. I hope you find it useful.
The biggest story of the week —at least for people not wearing genitalia on their heads— was the second summit between PDT and Rocket Man in Hanoi, Vietnam.
It ended a bit early.
After some hopeful indicators early on, PDT abruptly ended the summit after a day and a half of talks, acknowledging that the two sides weren’t yet ready to reach a deal that would accomplish the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
“Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump told a news conference in Hanoi that was moved up by several hours and took place in the middle of the night in the United States.
Simple enough. All the same, let’s do our autopsy.
What are we discussing, again?
Perhaps the most important goal of the Hanoi summit aside from denuclearization itself is what the term “denuclearization” actually means to each side. For the U.S., it’s pretty simple. List all your nuclear assets (though we already have our own list), allow inspectors in, then systematically and irreversibly dismantle the entire Rocket Man nuclear stockpile.
To Pyongyang, it means something very, very different. It means mutual steps to get rid of nuclear weapons, including requiring the United States to take down the nuclear umbrella it has put up over South Korea and Japan.
There simply hasn’t been any substantive reporting from either side so as to indicate whether these disparate views have been reconciled. However, given the Trump administration’s willingness to travel and meet in now two high-profile summits, one would assume that Kim has at least signaled a willingness to move toward our view. PDT was also candid in his reasoning for walking away, so one would assume that if the impasse centered on the meaning of denuclearization, he would say so.
Unfortunately, assumptions are all we have at this point in regards to this potential deal-breaker.
Why Trump Walked
In the days before the Hanoi summit, Trump indicated he was eager to lift U.S. sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. Unfortunately, Kim seems to have thought that he was eager to lift them for free.
Trump held out the prospect of “tremendous economic potential” for North Korea if it committed to a genuine denuclearization process. But as the meeting concluded Thursday, Trump said Kim had not offered enough to justify lifting the sanctions and said they would stay in place.
The good news is Trump also said he expected Kim would continue to put nuclear and missile testing on hold, which has been an accomplishment in its own right. North Korea last tested a missile – an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, to be specific – in late 2017.
The bad news is the two sides can’t even seem to agree on what was on the negotiating table. PDT told reporters the North had demanded a full removal of sanctions in exchange for only a partial shutdown of its nuclear arsenal, specifically the Yongbyon nuclear facility. While that facility would represent substantial, tangible progress, it would hardly cripple their ability to threaten and blackmail the world, as Kim learned to do from his father. It would have been a terrible deal and Trump was absolutely right to reject it.
Conversely, the North claims that they never demanded a full lifting of sanctions, insisting they had asked only partial sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down its main nuclear complex. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho even took the extraordinary step (for North Korea) of holding an abruptly scheduled middle-of-the-night news conference after Air Force One was in the air.
Ri said the North was also ready to offer in writing a permanent halt of the country’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and Washington had wasted an opportunity that “may not come again.” He said the North’s position won’t change even if the United States offers to resume another round of dialogue.
Call me crazy, but I trust President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo to shoot a little straighter than the Kim regime when it comes to press releases. This is a bad sign, as it shows North Korea to be playing the same old grabass games they’ve become notorious for in diplomatic circles.
That lack of seriousness likely affected Trump’s decision to leave more than any particular negotiating item. It seems clear that Kim thought he could throw a few compliments Trump’s way and leave with a sweetheart deal that allowed him to reap economic benefits while maintaining his status as a nuclear power.
Thankfully, he was wrong. If he snuck something past PDT, Pompeo would have caught it. We’re extremely lucky to have him in this position at this point in history.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it; this was the by far the lowest point of the summit.
PDT said Kim “didn’t know” about U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, the college student from Ohio who died after being imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier was released to his parents in June 2017 in a coma with a massive brain injury and died days afterward. PDT said he asked about Warmbier and was told that Kim had no knowledge of what happened, which he believed.
“I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump said of Kim. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”
Without getting too deep in the weeds, suffice it to say, Kim knows full well of what happens to every high-profile American prisoner in his custody. Orders to torture American prisoners aren’t handed down by anyone but the head man, and if someone acted outside of his authority, they, themselves would be tortured to death.
I have very high-confidence intel on what happened to Otto Warmbier. He was deemed a spy by the regime, then force-fed a chemical the North Koreans believe to have truth serum like properties. He was fed so much that his brain was slow cooked. He died an agonizing death, and was delivered by the regime still alive just so the full effects of their deed could be witnessed, which they were, by his loved ones.
To their credit, the Warmbier family has stayed silent through Trump’s other fawning statements about Kim, including declarations that he’d “fallen in love” with him and that he was a “great leader.” They understood the stakes and tried to compartmentalize their own heinous experience for the good of the country.
They ended that silence this week, and I can’t blame them.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that. Thank you.”
Mr. President, everyone understands that you’re trying to foster goodwill and thus a working relationship with a man who has nukes pointed at our shores. We also understand that other approaches haven’t worked and that your approach deserves an honest chance. But you don’t have to do this. You can speak diplomatically without lying about the nature of a man and his regime. Simply don’t refer to it at all. A statement along the lines of, “We’re clear-eyed about events of the past, but we must focus on the future in the interest of world peace.”
There are a million things you can say, really. Just please don’t put those parents through anymore of those types of statements. And please don’t marginalize the suffering of millions of starving North Koreans.
And besides, it doesn’t work. Dictators don’t respect it. When you take Kim’s word for things such as that, he just thinks you’re a schmuck. That’s why he thought he could play you in Hanoi in the first place.
You’re better than that.
This setback does sting, to be sure, but it’s not the end of the world. Indeed, I think this summit was far more productive than the last. Kim went into this meeting expecting to get a lot in exchange for a little. He’s now seen firsthand that that dog won’t hunt. That’s most certainly the most important fact to be established between our countries to date.
From the available information, it seems that the most critical issue to be worked out is sequencing. North Korea wants to get paid upfront before the process of dismantlement is completed, while the U.S. wants to withhold payment until North Korea delivers on its commitments. Inevitably, any deal will require a complicated choreography of steps toward dismantlement matched by reciprocal actions by the U.S. and its allies, principally South Korea, which is eager to pursue economic projects with the North on generous financial terms. The details of such an arrangement can only be hammered out in lengthy negotiations between diplomats and experts from both sides.
But we can’t move forward in this process in any meaningful way until the North takes a serious step without getting money first. Think of it this way: If a guy has a gun on you demanding money, but you’ve given him money before and he never took away the gun, why on Earth would you fork over more cash until the gun was lowered?
That’s the essence of this standoff, and it’s why I’ve repeatedly emphasized the need for patience in order to build trust. It may be a pipe dream, but it’s the only dream we have. There are ZERO good military options with North Korea. They have artillery at the DMZ waiting to level Seoul and kill untold scores of people —both American and Korean— at the first hint of attack within its borders. That’s not to speak of its nuclear arsenal, which now has shiny new missiles to expand its kill zone.
We have to make this work. The alternative is unthinkable. That’s why my armchair quarterbacking of this issue has been limited to Warmbier statements, as I don’t envy the position PDT is in.
If you’re the praying type, we need you.