Hopes were high in Hanoi, Vietnam, this week, as President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiled and shook hands, ready for their second summit. Perhaps the United States and North Korea would finally reach a deal to denuclearize the latter, paving the way for a more benign, fruitful relationship between the two countries. Alas, it was not meant to be. Trump and Kim ended their summit on Thursday after failing to agree on any steps to curb North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. But while the talks collapsed—at least for the moment—people should not view the result as a failure. Indeed, Trump should be commended for walking away from a bad deal.
Many observers thought Trump would be so desperate for a deal that he would agree to almost any terms, succumbing to dreams of diplomatic greatness. They watched Trump call Kim his "friend" and worried the president was too trusting. Perhaps Kim felt this way, too, hence his widely one-sided proposal (more on that in a moment). Ultimately, however, Trump did not do what his critics feared.
"I am never afraid to walk from a deal," Trump told reporters after the summit ended. "Sometimes you have to walk."
Lifting sanctions on North Korea seemed to be the main roadblock to further negotiations. According to Trump, Kim insisted that all of the United Nations's sanctions imposed on Pyongyang be lifted in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility, the site of a reactor and plutonium-reprocessing plant and a central piece of the North's weapons program.
"It was about the sanctions," Trump said. "Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn't do that."
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho later disputed Trump's account of what happened, saying his country asked for the removal of 5 of the 11 sets of sanctions imposed by the U.N., not all of them.
"We proposed to the United States to lift five sanctions—which [were] adopted between 2016 and 2017 and impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people—among 11 U.N. sanctions resolutions all together," Ri said, according to a translation of his remarks.
Even if Ri's account is accurate, Trump was right to reject the proposal. That North Korea only asked for a fraction of the U.N. resolutions can be misleading; the five that North Korea put on the table comprise most of the international pressure through sanctions on Pyongyang. Trump may have not been literally accurate about all sanctions, but he was right for all intents and purposes. And in exchange, the North would only destroy one nuclear site. What about the other sites in North Korea? And what about inspecting them? Like Iran during negotiations over its nuclear program, North Korea seems to want all the benefits without any of the costs: to obtain relief from sanctions while preserving the ability to build nuclear weapons. Only this time, Trump did not grant an adversary its wish—at least for now.
One does not need an MBA from an elite university to realize that making major concessions up front in a negotiation takes away leverage for later. If Trump agreed to lift most sanctions right away in exchange for less extensive nuclear concessions, then the United States would be in a far weaker position to act against North Korea in the future if necessary. What if North Korea cheats? What leverage would the United States have? Re-imposing sanctions at the U.N. does not happen with a snap of the fingers. Considering all North Korea has done is lie to the international community about its nuclear program, Pyongyang cheating is an outcome all too likely.
The United States should not provide North Korea any sanctions relief for something it has repeatedly promised to do. More generally, the United States should not lift any sanctions until North Korea has demonstrated beyond doubt that it has taken major steps to curb its nuclear program. Any agreement that falls short of this standard is not worth the paper on which it is written.
Trump's decision to walk away from Kim's proposal is a net positive not only for his policy toward North Korea, but also toward Iran. Had Trump agreed to North Korea's terms, the Islamic Republic would have seen the United States make significant concessions while still allowing North Korea to keep its nuclear arsenal. Iran would be given greater incentive to undermine American sanctions and still seek nuclear weapons, believing that, once it gets the bomb, Washington will not have the will to do anything meaningful about it.
After the Hanoi Summit, the question is what happens next. Fortunately, the United States and North Korea are still talking, so high-level negotiations may resume at a later date. Whether they do or not, Trump and his advisers should consider one hitch that few people want to acknowledge, a hitch that explains why this summit failed and why future summits will likely fail: the United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and North Korea does not want to give them up. That basic point is the great obstacle to denuclearization. And unless it changes, do not bet on any grand diplomatic bargains.