U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may both be returning to their home countries empty-handed after failing to come to an agreement on North Korea’s denuclearization Thursday, but experts remain optimistic that they walked away from the negotiation table on good terms.
Shortly after talks began on Thursday, Kim and Trump reportedly found themselves at an impasse. Trump said during a press conference that during the talks Kim had offered to dismantle North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear research facility in exchange for total sanctions relief, something the U.S. was not prepared to give.
“President Trump showed that he doesn’t want a deal so bad that he is willing to make a bad deal. So President Trump was absolutely right for walking away from a deal,” said David Maxwell, a Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.
Trump’s claim has been disputed by North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who said that Pyongyang only sought partial sanctions relief.
With both sides now pointing fingers at each other, several experts said that it is clear that the two leaders went into the summit further apart than they both realized, and this emphasized a need for more lower-level diplomatic engagement prior to a high profile summit.
“What the Hanoi outcome underscores is the critical importance of moving away from head of state summits and establishing an effective diplomatic process that empowers the U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams,” said Kelsey Davenport, the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, during a conference call with reporters.
“Working-level talks are a much more appropriate forum for hammering out the details on concrete verifiable actions that roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for measured addressing of North Korea’s economic and security concerns,” she added.
Former congressman John Tierney, now the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation agreed, saying “The leaders’ role is to pull rabbits out of the hat, but technical experts and diplomats, their job is to put rabbits into the hat.”
He was critical of those who believed the president had negotiation skills sufficient enough to resolve these issues on a one-to-one basis.
“Now I think we can hope that the reality TV portion of the program is over. We can hope that the president finally allows those experienced technocrats and diplomats to get to work with their counterparts from North Korea, and work toward a process to build trust with some incremental, reciprocal actions that would lead to a desired result,” he added
The level of disappointment is high among many experts, but some have said that the outcome was not a disaster and said that Trump and Kim did not burn any personal bridges between them, indicating that negotiations could be ongoing.
“The silver lining, I think, from not getting this joint statement, I would say, look at the last sentence of that White House statement that said no agreement was reached at this time, but their respective teams look forward to meeting in the future,” said Richard Johnson, a Senior Director at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Erica Fein from the Washington-based Win Without War advocacy coalition also felt that a continuation in negotiations was likely.
“We’ve got to take the long view here. There are always setbacks in diplomacy and that is clearly what this is, but I’m optimistic that the door is still open,” she said.
“It will take a lot of skill from those invested in a better outcome, like [South Korean] President Moon Jae-In, and South Korean and U.S. civil society to make this a priority for,” said Fein.
But there are some who doubt a deal will ever be reached.
“I think the prospect for successful negotiation in the future is not so high,” said Sue Mi Terry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“How do you [continue] from here? We don’t even have [an] agreed upon definition of denuclearization, we don’t have [an] agreed timeline, [or an] agreed road map,” she said.
“Kim and Trump met at highest level. I don’t think it’ going be easy.”
Additional Reporting by Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service.