ANALYSIS — The table was set for a working lunch inside a posh Hanoi hotel, silverware wrapped in carefully folded napkins atop yellow plates flanked by flowers placed on a long rectangular table. But President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un never stepped foot in the room — and their path to a deal is newly murky.
Reporters in Vietnam for the duo’s second nuclear disarmament summit were positioned on one side of the room, some tweeting pictures of the lunch table as they waited. Soon came this dispatch from the day’s print pooler, David Nakamura of the Washington Post, quoting a White House spokeswoman: “There has been a program change.”
The table was set and food prepared for a working Trump-Kim lunch that now won’t happen. pic.twitter.com/0CMDpgIYBw
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) February 28, 2019
That announcement, it turned out, was an understatement.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders soon announced Trump and Kim had not reached a deal. Word followed that the summit was being cut short by a few hours and the president would be returning to Washington early. At a press conference before he departed Hanoi, Trump would commit only to staff-level talks with the North — but not a third summit with Kim. Here are three takeaways from the failed summit.
It is not at all clear why either side insisted on a second summit now. There were plenty of signs before they left their respective capital cities that a final deal was not possible.
In fact, Trump began to lower expectations, saying last week that as long as Kim kept up his freeze on nuclear and missile tests that he would be “happy.”
“And one of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is regardless [of the summit’s outcome] he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear — not going to do testing,” Trump told reporters after the summit collapsed. “So, you know, I trust him, and I take him at his word. I hope that’s true. But in the meantime, we’ll be talking.”
On a call with reporters Thursday morning, Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korean analyst, said she was “surprised” to wake up to the news of no deal.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst said that those with knowledge of the talks believed Kim appeared to “overplay his hand” and “underestimated President Trump” by requesting full sanctions relief. And the U.S. commander in chief was guilty of “catching the North Koreans off guard” by bringing up two of their covert uranium-enrichment sites.
On the same call, fellow CSIS analyst Victor Cha chalked up the failure to bad staff work.
“A second high-level summit with not enough prep work is just not going to work,” said Cha, director for Asian Affairs on George W. Bush’s National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. “Maybe it was for domestic reasons,” he said, saying Trump might have sensed due to political and legal trouble at home he “needed a foreign policy win.”
Cha called the failed Hanoi huddle “a breakdown that probably didn’t need to happen the way that it did.” But it did, leaving an uncertain path for the longtime adversaries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday he sensed Kim was “hopeful” the two sides would make a deal in Hanoi.
“I hope our teams will get together in the days and weeks ahead and work out. It’s a very complex problem. We have said since the beginning this would take time,” Pompeo said. “Our teams have gotten to know each other better. We know what some of the limits are and challenges are, and I think in the days and weeks ahead we can make progress so we can ultimately achieve what the world wants.”
That means “progress” is the Trump administration’s new goal, not an actual deal.
“Where do we go from here?” Terry asked.
She noted Trump and Kim walked away with no common definition of what would constitute denuclearization — on which the two sides still lack a common definition — or a roadmap for future talks or a timeline by which they aim to strike a deal.
“It’s hard to repeat now this kind of summit … again,” she said. “The good news is it’s not so catastrophic. Trump didn’t say it’s over for good. He just said a deal is not there for now. There’s an incentive on both sides to not escalate tensions — for now. But how long will that last?”
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now with the Heritage Foundation, said, “Washington should emphasize that the negotiating focus must be on denuclearization, upholding U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws against North Korean violations.”
So many distractions
Often an open book, Trump admitted to reporters that he tuned into as much of the testimony on Wednesday as he could from his former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen. Analysts wondered before and then after the summit whether the embattled U.S. president might have been too focused on the allegations Cohen made and not enough on preparing for negotiating with the North Korean dictator.
Trump sharply alleged that Cohen “lied about so many things,” calling the decision by House Oversight and Reform Committee Democrats to hold the hearing while he was huddling with Kim “shameful.”
Analysts say Trump will return home with even more legal and political problems after Cohen told the panel his former boss is a “con man” and a “cheat” who is “racist.” Cohen also alleged Trump committed a slew of crimes, including campaign finance violations, tax fraud, banking crimes and insurance fraud.
What’s more, Trump is about to embark on a re-election campaign, and is trying to nail down a trade deal with China in an expected summit at his south Florida resort with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I just think it gets a lot harder when the two leaders couldn’t overcome barriers to get some kind of quid pro quo,” Cha said. “How are we going to move this ball forward? If the leaders cannot agree, there’s not much diplomatic road left. … We’re at a pretty serious impasse right now. [Trump] may feel like he gave it a shot and put this on the back burner for a while.”