Post-Hanoi: What Next for U.S.-DPRK Relations? – Expert Interview with Frank Aum

U.S.-DPRK relations have reached an uncertain stalemate after the Hanoi Summit resulted in no deal. With both sides seemingly unwilling to compromise, and putting the onus on the other to make the first move, what can we expect in the months ahead? ISDP Korea Center’s Alec Forss chatted with Frank Aum, a former advisor to four U.S. Secretaries of Defense and currently Senior Expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, on the current situation and the prospects for diplomacy.

It’s just over three months since Trump and Kim walked away from Hanoi. Was it a surprise to you that they failed to reach some kind of deal given the seemingly promising build-up beforehand? Was it the case of unrealistic expectations from both sides, or inadequate preparation and the lack of a plan B?

I was somewhat surprised at the lack of a negotiated agreement at Hanoi for several reasons. First, Special Representative Steven Biegun’s remarks at Stanford University leading up to Hanoi seemed to suggest that the Trump administration was interested in reaching a deal and somewhat flexible in the type of deal it would accept. Biegun indicated that Washington was committed to discussing peace and denuclearization simultaneously and in parallel – which is a radical shift from previous U.S. policies that demanded denuclearization first before discussing peace – and that there could be some flexibility on sanctions relief. Second, there was the leak in that outlined a potential tentative deal.

Third, it seemed that the notion of an “all-or-nothing,” Libya-style, everything upfront type of deal that National Security Advisor, John Bolton, proposed in 2018 to much criticism had receded. Fourth, it wasn’t clear yet that North Korea was going to propose its own version of all-or-nothing to Trump through its request for relief from all the civilian sectoral sanctions. And lastly, it seemed that both Trump and Kim were eager for a deal. So it wasn’t just that some analysts were surprised, I think both Trump and Kim were surprised as well. I believe both leaders overestimated their leverage, their ability to persuade the other, and the other side’s willingness to be flexible – all of which contributed to the lack of leader preparation and a plan B.

President Trump has been apt to boast the achievements of his diplomacy towards North Korea on the premise that; “they are not firing missiles or doing nuclear tests anymore.”

Are North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests calculated to pressure the U.S. back to the negotiation table? And could Trump’s downplaying of them as just “small weapons” in fact prompt North Korea to conduct more, potentially bigger, tests?

I think North Korea’s recent missile tests are aimed at two audiences. Pyongyang is sending a message that Washington needs to demonstrate greater flexibility in negotiations or else there will be greater provocations in the future. At the same time, the regime is demonstrating internally to its people and its military that it will not relent to U.S. demands. We also shouldn’t discount the normal research and development purposes of conducting a new type of missile test.

Although President Trump’s attempt to dismiss the tests as only of “small weapons” may prove to be risky and invite greater provocations, previous U.S. administrations have made similar decisions to ignore smaller provocations to keep diplomacy on track. It’s a tradeoff that Trump is willing to accept. I think North Korea already has an internal calculus of where to draw the line in terms of provocations and they know that, regardless of Trump’s characterizations, they’re not at the line yet.

Contradictory messaging has of course been a feature of the Trump administration. How do you view the current dynamics within the administration regarding U.S. North Korea policy? Is John Bolton as national security advisor playing the “spoiler” as North Korea, and others, seem to assume?

The lack of message discipline from the Trump administration, both within the government and with allies, is a serious problem in effective policy implementation. When messaging changes frequently, it’s no surprise that North Korea only looks to President Trump for the final say.

John Bolton has a consistent history of advocating for a tough, hardline policy so this should not be surprising. President Trump recognizes this and has even joked about having to rein in Bolton from his more aggressive proclivities. In fact, it may be possible that President Trump gains some leverage by having an advisor to play the bad cop role. The real question is where does Trump stand.

The read from Hanoi is that the U.S. demanded more on denuclearization than North Korea was willing to give, while North Korea asked for too much on sanctions relief.

Do you see any prospect at all for a mutually acceptable middle ground emerging between the U.S. and North Korea, and where could the potential trade-offs lie? Or did the summit expose, at least for the time being, an unbridgeable gulf between them?

I think the Hanoi summit revealed the initial going-in positions of both sides, which is what happens at the beginning of any negotiation. Now that the positions have been laid out, the two sides can begin the real process of negotiating. I’m not sure why this couldn’t have happened in Hanoi – this could be hardball tactics or gamesmanship from both sides or just a lack of experience. In any case, I think a compromise could be something that satisfies North Korea’s desire for a more phased, reciprocal process as well as the U.S. interest in capturing the final end-state of denuclearization.

One idea is to have a comprehensive deal agreed to on paper, including reciprocal U.S. concessions, but then an implementation process that is more phased. This type of deal could include sanctions relief but with time-based snapback provisions. Neither side would be fully happy about this type of deal but perhaps it might be a starting point. Another solution is just to negotiate a smaller deal. Again, neither side would be completely happy. The problem in both cases is that time is running out and the two sides need to move quickly.

It would appear Seoul is increasingly caught between a rock and hard place due to the deteriorating U.S. and North Korea relations. Do you see potential for growing frictions in the U.S.-ROK alliance if Washington maintains its current stance? And with President Trump due to visit South Korea in June, what do you think President Moon will be hoping to achieve from that visit?

There is certainly the possibility for friction within a partnership where the two sides don’t always see eye-to-eye. Washington may see Seoul as trying to move too quickly on engagement and not maintaining solidarity.  But Seoul, as a co-equal alliance partner, probably views the U.S. as not moving fast enough on engagement and not demonstrating greater solidarity as an ally. At some point, probably by the end of the year, President Moon will have to decide whether he will take bold action that either upsets Washington or Pyongyang or opts for a middle course that muddles along until the end of his term.

My guess is that during their meeting in Washington last April, Moon didn’t hear enough tangible signs of flexibility from Trump that he could then take to Kim and persuade him back to talks. When Trump visits Seoul in June, I think Moon will see if there’s been any shift in Trump’s position or if he can elicit some type of wiggle room from Trump. Still, the biggest concern is that time is running out. Kim has already declared the end of the year as a deadline for negotiations, Trump’s attention will shift to the presidential elections starting 2020, and Moon essentially becomes a lame duck by next year given South Korea’s single-term, five-year presidency. I wouldn’t say we’re in stoppage time yet, but we’re close to the end of the regulation period.