The Hanoi Summit Was Doomed From the Start

North Korea Was Never Going to Unilaterally Disarm

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump listen to questions from the media during their one-on-one bilateral meeting at the second North Korean-U.S. summit in the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 2019. Leah Millis / REUTERS

It should come as no surprise that the Hanoi summit between the United States and North Korea ended in failure. The two countries’ incompatible demands made reaching a new agreement—not just on North Korea’s nuclear program but on anything—almost impossible. Washington called on Pyongyang to unilaterally surrender its entire nuclear weapons program before it would make any concessions. Despite intial reports that the United States was ready to move negotiations forward by first seeking a partial freeze on production of fissile material, it instead went after the whole program—everything old and new—in one swing. Pyongyang unsurprisingly refused, demanding that Washington lift almost all sanctions before it would discuss any further “denuclearization steps.” The United States considered that too high a price for anything short of Pyongyang’s total unilateral disarmament, and talks collapsed. The gulf between U.S. and North Korean demands—not to mention a lack of agreement on what terms as central as “denuclearization” or “corresponding measures” actually meant—had been deftly papered over in the months since the historic first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June. But the bill finally came due in Hanoi.


At an unusual press conference after the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained Pyongyang’s views of what went wrong. According to Ri, Kim asked for the repeal of specific clauses in five UN Security Council sanction resolutions passed in 2016 and 2017 that North Korea saw as pressuring its “civilian” economy. That was a big ask: these sanctions cover sources of revenue worth billions of dollars to the North Korean regime, including petroleum, iron, coal, and even overseas labor. Given the Trump administration’s belief that it was precisely its “maximum pressure” campaign—and not Kim’s attainment of a sufficiently broad and complete nuclear deterrent—that brought North Korea to the negotiating table, sanctions relief was always going to be a major concession.


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