Time is not on President Donald Trump’s side if he still hopes to put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions after the collapse of his summit with Kim Jong Un.
Negotiators seeking to lay new groundwork for a potential agreement will probably have to proceed in a far more plodding fashion than the breakneck pace of the diplomatic process that relied so heavily on Trump and Kim’s personal involvement over the past year, former diplomats and veterans of North Korea policy said Thursday.
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And Trump’s rising domestic demands, as he gears up for reelection with middling approval ratings under the cloud of multiple investigations, mean his capacity to make a breakthrough where his predecessors failed could steadily erode.
“Obviously, Trump has a pretty big growing number of competing priorities at the moment,” said Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center and former assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The failure to get an agreement at this summit may actually lose the momentum for continuing negotiations in a sea of all these competing priorities.”
She added that she fears the two countries may be in for “a waiting period where both sides try to recalibrate and figure out how to come back to this.”
One initial hurdle will be overcoming the bad blood in the aftermath of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, the two leaders’ second meeting in less than a year.
Trump blamed the impasse on Kim’s demand for “sanctions lifted in their entirety” in return for dismantling North Korea’s main — but not sole — nuclear weapons facility at Yongbyon.
“They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that,” he told reporters afterward.
But hours later, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho denied in a rare news conference that his government had demanded a lifting of all sanctions. He said North Korea sought only for the “U.S. to lift articles of sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people” in return for dismantling the nuclear plant.
If the diplomatic effort can be revived, the consensus is that it will require far more legwork at the “working level” to iron out a detailed framework. That would need to happen before the two leaders can reconvene a third time to reach a deal they would be willing to accept.
Indeed, a major criticism of the process to date has been that so much of the diplomacy between the two countries has hung on the freelancing of Trump and Kim, whose relationship has yawed between personal rapport and threats of nuclear warfare.
“I think the problem here is it is a little bit dicey with President Trump, who sees himself as the master negotiator and only he can reach really the deals,” Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator with North Korea and founder of 38 North, which analyzes the country, told reporters Thursday. “And I’m sure Kim Jong Un thinks of himself as the master negotiator, too. It is a combustible thing.”
Nevertheless, the second Trump-Kim summit appeared to rely on more preparatory work by others than their first meeting — including by Steve Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, huddling with his North Korean counterparts.
“I think they’ve learned some of the lessons of the first summit and they actually empowered Steve Biegun and the negotiating team to get some things done,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served on the National Security Council for President Barack Obama and specializes in nuclear weapons. “I think they did make progress.”
Still, others said too much was left to the whims of the two unpredictable leaders.
“I have been very unhappy with the idea that the president and the chairman were going to do this in a high-profile meeting in a matter of hours,” Ambassador Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, told reporters Thursday, referring to Kim’s other role as chairman of the Workers’ Party in North Korea. “It just didn’t seem plausible. And then it is turning out not to look like a good process.”
In his view, Biegun simply didn’t have enough time before the summit to maximize the chances of a breakthrough.
Biegun “was essentially given in what American football we call the two-minute drill to try and win the game,” Gallucci said. “And that’s very hard … to get things settled so that the president and the chairman can roll in and sign a piece of paper because it’s all been negotiated. It would have never happened like that before and it didn’t happen that way this time.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who invested significant time trying to bring the two sides together, dismissed the notion that Trump’s aides hadn’t done enough prep work before the two leaders met in Vietnam.
“We were sawing at it from both ends of the tree,” he told reporters afterward. “We cleared away a lot of brush over the past really 60, 90 days at the working level. And then we were hoping we could take another big swing when the two leaders got together. We did. We made some progress. But we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped we would have gotten.”
Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat who formerly sat on the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute that he envisions “there will be continued negotiations, not necessarily at that high of a level, but underneath that to where we actually get … complete denuclearization.”
But it probably won’t be a swift process.
“This challenging work will take time,” said former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a veteran of the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear negotiations who is now CEO of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. He called for “sustained efforts and detailed negotiations, given the complexity of the issues and the long history of mistrust between the two countries.”
Some of that distrust also resides within the Trump administration, where key aides like hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton have been deeply skeptical that North Korea, which has cheated repeatedly on past nuclear agreements, will live up to any pact. Some have even accused Bolton of trying to torpedo the talks.
“What we are seeing is basically factionalism and guerrilla warfare inside the administration and the results are predictable,” said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to Global Zero, a nuclear disarmament group. “You basically have chaos.”
Other factors could run out the clock and pose risks for Trump as he heads into 2020 with no guarantee of another term.
For one thing, members of Congress have made it clear they expect to weigh in on a North Korea deal, as they did with the Iran agreement, which could slow things down.
Much will also depend on what sort of deal Trump decides to strike if he can. An agreement that permits North Korea to permanently keep part of its nuclear arsenal would probably be widely viewed as a failure. And any disarmament deal would by definition be phased in over time — raising the chances it could fall apart, especially with North Korea’s history of deceit.
“Any deal will take a while to verify, and the more nuclear facilities North Korea agrees to close, the longer it will take,” said Mike Fuchs, an Asia analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “The U.S. must recognize that this is an incremental process.”
Then there are the political scandals weighing down on Trump personally and politically that may sap his authority and weaken his hand with Kim.
Wit believes that the scandals have real implications for Trump’s North Korea diplomacy. “My concern is the president and others being engulfed by domestic political problems,” he said.
In the meantime, Pompeo acknowledged that a breakthrough is no longer imminent. “We have always known it was a long ways,” he told reporters Thursday, adding that there is “still a lot of work to do.”
Nahal Toosi and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.