Joshua PollackWho Lost North Korea?

As Jeffrey likes to say, the Singapore summit of June 2018 was a goat rodeo—the contained chaos that results from putting some kids with ropes into a corral with some, well, kids. It looks like this:

That makes last month’s summit in Hanoi something a bit different: a scapegoat rodeo. As events go, it’s much more participatory: even the viewers at home can paint horns on the villain of their choice.

Who blew it? Who’s at fault? The wide-eyed negotiator who got “too far over his skis”? Maybe his boss, the swaggering courtier? No? How about his boss’s rival, the conniving national security adviser with a flair for sabotage? Perhaps their boss, the Day-Glo narcissist with the opposite of the Midas touch? Or, alternatively, his Mao-suited pen pal? There are other choices, too; I’m still waiting for the presidential Twitter account to launch a dart at a favorite target, Xi Jinping.

You see, it’s a fun game for players of all ages. Who’s really to blame? And who will take the blame?

Like I said before, everyone can play, and it seems that lots of folks want to. But it’s also tempting to say that this is the wrong idea, that the entire farce was fated to blow up—maybe not at the second summit, but at some point. That is, maybe the fault lies not with any particular actor, but with the situation itself—a system-level explanation.

Or maybe it’s some of both. Let’s unpack matters a bit. Who, or what, has brought us to this point? In hopes of reaching a better understanding of this mess and where it’s likely to go, I’d like to nominate two entities to take the blame. One’s a person, the other a thing.

First, Trump. No need to dwell on this one: our president has only a nodding acquaintance with realities beyond the TV screen. He’s also responsible for his own staffing choices. But most of all, his insistence that he is “the only one who matters” in diplomacy has created a powerful incentive for Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to avoid negotiating with any of Trump’s subordinates. Kim just wants to get to the man himself. Everything therefore has hinged on summits, with minimal preparation.

Second, a lack of mutual understanding. Each side has consistently judged itself to have most of the leverage. Trump, Pompeo, and (as recently as Sunday morning) Bolton have all insisted that the amped-up sanctions of 2016–17, a.k.a., “maximum pressure,” brought North Korea to the table and will ultimately compel Kim to accept Washington’s diktat. On the other side of the ledger, at every level from Kim himself on down, North Korea’s consistent public explanation for the start of bilateral diplomacy has been its own achievements with nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

As far as I can see, both sides are sincere enough in their self-serving beliefs, which has led them to some genuine surprises. If there is no reassessment on either side, then we should have every reason to expect a return to previous form: each side doubling down, seeking to enhance its leverage.

The good news is that North Korea probably won’t return to nuclear testing or testing ICBMs in the foreseeable future. (Note that “probably.” There are no guarantees in life, they say.) Kim Jong Un ruled out those options in April 2018, well before meeting with Trump for the first time, in June. Even when the summit plans came off the rails in May, Kim went ahead with his decision to close his underground nuclear testing site. We shouldn’t forget that there are other players around the table—notably the Chinese—who may have reached some understandings with Kim. While he honors any such understandings, and isn’t seen as having been the intransigent party in dealings with Washington, Kim may calculate that Beijing won’t be in a hurry to inflict new penalties on him.

After all, aside from ICBMs, Kim still has plenty of other missiles he might like to test. And he’s never promised not to launch satellites. North Korea has repeatedly mentioned plans for launching a geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellite, going as far back as April 2012. That’s a plan that would require a larger, more powerful booster than they have previously revealed. It should not be a surprise if that booster, whenever it appears, turns out to have some commonalities with North Korea’s new family of ICBMs.

(In case you’ve somehow missed it, here’s a look at the latest round of activity at the facility that builds North Korea’s space launchers and ICBMs alike.)

Monday morning, Special Representative Stephen Biegun is scheduled to speak at the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, affectionately known as Nukefest. It’ll be interesting to hear his diagnosis and his prognosis. It’s almost certainly too soon to expect any deep reconsideration of the situation or of the administration’s choice of strategy. Still, it won’t hurt to listen. Sooner or later, perhaps, just perhaps, there will be hints of something new.


  1. Gregory Matteson (History)

    There is one factor in this and other Summits involving President Trump that I have seen little commentary on. President Trump believes in his personal prowess as a negotiator, and judge of character. He negotiates one on one; at least in the cases of Chairman Kim and President Putin without the benefit of a translator. Publicly available information indicates strongly that both Kim and Putin speak fluent English. President Trump speaks neither Russian, or Korean at all. I find this troubling.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      I don’t know about Putin, but Trump and Kim have used interpreters.