Students wave Vietnamese and North Korean flags at the Vietnam-North Korea Friendship Kindergarten school in Hanoi. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

The sudden collapse of the second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and American President Donald Trump caught most observers by surprise. However, even before it started, circumstances were aligned against its success.

Who to blame?

Some pundits were quick to place most, if not all, of the blame for the summit failure on Trump, saying that the self-proclaimed deal-maker had met his match. After all, the Kim team has had years of experience in international dealings, while Trump and most of his team are comparatively untested.

Moreover, Trump may have been ill-prepared for the task and was possibly overly confident in his ability to strike a grand bargain, while his reading of Kim as a reasonable guy willing to make a deal has been seen as naïve.

Yet these shortcomings do not comprise a complete list of the things that went wrong with – or were wrong even before – the summit. According to statements by Trump at the after-summit press conference, the North Koreans wanted, for all intents and purposes, a complete lifting of sanctions in exchange for the shutting down of only the Yongbyon nuclear site.

In fact, what the North wanted was relief from sanctions placed into effect after 2016; North Korea’s foreign minister characterized the request as merely partial sanctions relief in return for closing down Yongbyon. However, as these are the key sanctions that put most of the pressure on the North, relief from them would have been considerable, and a major victory for the North. That makes the North’s statement disingenuous at best, and indicates that Trump’s statement was not entirely inaccurate.

Moreover, while Yongbyon is undeniably the centerpiece of Pyongyang’s nuclear effort, it is not the only site that produces fissile material. According to Trump, when the American side pointed this out, the North appeared surprised that the United States knew so much about its covert nuclear facilities.

Kim appears to have overplayed his hand with Trump, possibly on purpose, to avoid any deal requiring even partial denuclearization. However, Trump was also being unrealistic in expecting Kim to relinquish all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. Most Korea watchers have known for some time that this is a non-starter.

With Kim asking for near complete sanctions relief and Trump seeking something akin to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization – CIVD – the summit reached an impasse.

Lax preparation

Even before the summit got underway, there were problems that had been intentionally glossed over. From the very beginning of Pyongyang’s diplomatic surge in late 2017, South Korea has either willfully or gullibly misrepresented remarks made by Kim about the North’s willingness to denuclearize.

In one example from last year, Seoul reported that Kim “would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.” That turned out not to be the case as the goal has now been clearly identified as – and likely always has been – sanctions relief.

Understandably, it is in Seoul’s best interests to get Pyongyang and Washington off the warpath since it is South Korea that would likely suffer substantial collateral damage during any open conflict on the peninsula, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made North-South engagement a centerpiece of his presidency.

However, painting an unfounded rosy picture for Trump – which perhaps contributed to his overconfidence – was bound to blow up in Moon’s face eventually.

Trump may also have been undermined by the pre-summit negotiations. There had been indications for months that Pyongyang and Washington were not reading from the same song sheet. One senior Trump spokesperson admitted anonymously last week that there was a “lack of clarity” regarding agreed-upon definitions for terms that would be involved in summit negotiations.

That alone ought to have put the brakes on convening the summit, yet Trump decided to proceed, trying for that big deal. That grand bargain looks like the handiwork of US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has advocated as much for months.

Bolton is a well-known hard-liner. His ideas run counter to the more phased approach that Stephen Biegun, US Special Representative for North Korea, and his North Korean colleagues had been working on during the run-up to the summit.

A way forward?

What is surprising is not that the summit blew up in Kim’s and Trump’s faces; it is that the summit even took place.

Fortunately, it seems that there has been no lasting damage. Trump apparently values his friendly relationship with Kim, and the North did seem exceptionally subdued in responding with its version of why there was no agreement.

With both sides’ opening offers now seen as unreasonable, there is still opportunity for each side to recover. Unrealistic expectations can be put aside and negotiations can resume under suitable conditions.

The first condition would be working toward common definitions of key terms and agreeing to a shared vocabulary. It is necessary to codify what each side means when using a specific word or phrase before negotiations can resume with any hope of success.

The second would be to recognize that, when dealing with matters of such import as denuclearization and while neither side has much trust in the other, smaller steps are easier to achieve. That helps to build the trust required for reaching the final goal.

The road ahead is unclear, but hopefully, the working groups on both sides will return to the table, where the principals of each team can get their feet on the ground before reaching for the stars.

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