Opinion: Door to diplomacy remains open after Hanoi

John Dale Grover

There is no doubt that the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was disappointing. However, it is important to emphasize that the way the meeting ended was not disastrous. Deterrence will maintain the peace, and the door remains open for future progress.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Hanoi. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The summit ended with both sides making differing claims as to what they had said they wanted. It appears that Kim had made a compelling offer to dismantling his Yongbyon nuclear reactor as well as halt all missile and bomb testing. Because testing is necessary to ensure a reliable and accurate arsenal, such a test ban would be welcome. However, Trump asserted that Kim had asked for complete sanctions relief in return, which was too much to give. In response, Pyongyang claimed that it only wanted relief from United Nations sanctions that had been imposed since their fourth nuclear test in 2006. Kim also claimed he was open to U.S. inspectors observing the destruction of Yongbyon.

Regardless of the truth, neither Trump nor Kim stormed out of Hanoi threatening military action or trading insults. Trump did not warn of “fire and fury,” and he did not declare a return to his maximum pressure campaign. Washington did not ramp up sanctions, use incendiary rhetoric, or heightened military activity to squeeze Kim. Pyongyang did not test another atomic bomb or announce it would launch a missile towards Guam in order to intimidate Trump. Moreover, North Korea’s highest circulation newspaper gave an overall positive review of the summit. All of this is very good news. The talks did fail — but only if the measurement for failure was to produce concessions by Kim. But if the objective is first to maintain the peace as a prerequisite to anything else, then the summit was underwhelming but not a failure.

How each side walked away is just as important as why they walked away. For instance, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan walked away from a failed arms control summit with the Soviet Union in Reykjavik, Iceland. It looked as though he would never again meet with Premier Mikhail Gorbachev — but eventually, they did and signed the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Granted, Trump is no Reagan, yet leaving without a deal but without shutting off future diplomacy was better than renewed confrontation.

For example, North Korea and America came dangerously close to war in 2017 when Trump nearly tweeted about evacuating U.S. civilians and diplomatic personnel from South Korea. Had he done so, there was a high likelihood North Korea would have taken it has a sign of an imminent preemptive war. This is why communication through back-channels, special representatives, and between Trump and Kim are vital. Both nuclear-armed countries must make their interests and red lines clear. They must avoid the kind of escalation cycles, miscommunication, and accidents that could lead to millions dying.

America’s nuclear weapons keep us safe, no matter what kind of weapons Kim has. Deterrence has and will keep the peace as it did with the Soviet Union and it does with Russia and China today. Thankfully, there has never been a nuclear war between two atomic powers — but nearly every historical case in which such a war almost happened was due to the reasons outlined above.

As long as both sides are talking and are not escalating, there is no reason to panic. Kim is rational and wants to live and rule his country for a long time. Deterrence will hold, and it will give each side the room in which to avoid threats and to come to the table again in the future.

So what happens now? It depends on who is willing to make the next move. Trump’s decision to suspend America’s annual large war games with South Korea could get the diplomatic ball rolling again. Kim may also reciprocate with an offer of his own. Alternatively, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who arguably deserves the most credit for getting this entire process underway, will likely try to jumpstart talks. He was the one who held a snap mini-summit with Kim that helped pave the way for the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. After all, South Korea has the most to lose, even more than America, since it sits right across the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

Ultimately, the Hanoi summit was not what it was hoped to be. But that is okay. It is wise to keep communication channels open. Even if North Korea never gives up its nuclear weapons, the most important goal should be to keep tensions down and avoid another war. In that regard, Kim and Trump are still succeeding, and their diplomacy should be supported.

John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He is also a fellow with Defense Priorities.