There were high hopes going into last week’s summit in Hanoi between President Trump and Chairman Kim that the two would reach some sort of a deal that would build upon their successes during last year’s Singapore meeting, but these peacemaking dreams were abruptly ended after the American leader walked out of the event without any agreement being reached. There are conflicting reports over what happened, but the general consensus seems to be that Trump unexpectedly proposed an all-or-nothing deal whereby the US would only lift its sanctions against North Korea if the country completely, irreversibly, and verifiably denuclearized, something that Pyongyang immediately rejected and has been opposed to for years already.
While it wasn’t surprising that Kim refused to accept this deal, few could have predicted that Trump would make such an offer knowing that North Korea wouldn’t ever approve of it, especially considering that he had literally said right before the summit that he was in “no rush” to see the country denuclearize. The sudden change of his position behind closed doors might have either been a negotiating tactic or could have been influenced by his National Security Advisor John Bolton who is known for being a neoconservative hawk adamantly opposed to international agreements on principle. According to one interpretation of events, Bolton pressured Trump into insisting upon unacceptable conditions in order to sabotage the talks.
This version implies that Trump fell under his National Security Advisor’s pernicious sway at the very last minute and ruined the historic chance to accept a middle-ground agreement for North Korea to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the progressive lifting of some sanctions all because he was naively convinced that he could finally get Kim to accept the US’ maximum demands. Should this have been the case, then it would suggest that Trump is more of the “deep state’s” follower than the “anti-deep state” leader that he presents himself as being, whether he’s even conscious of this fact or not. It would also show just how powerful Bolton has become if he could single-handedly subvert what could have otherwise been a hugely successful summit between the two nuclear powers.
On the other hand, some voices are accusing Chinese President Xi of being behind the summit’s failure, alleging that Kim is his proxy and that he was ordered not to accept any deal in order to inflict a devastating foreign policy loss for Trump at a crucial stage of the trade war talks between America and the People’s Republic. This is speculated to have been an asymmetrical means through which China could reap more concessions from the US and presumes that Beijing has full control over its “puppet” in Pyongyang, the latter of which is very questionable and based more on neoconservative fantasies than any empirical evidence. Still, it’s a narrative that’s caught on in some quarters and forms a prism through which influential figures in the Administration might view the summit’s failure.
It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but one can make an educated guess by analyzing Trump’s three responses to it afterwards. He interestingly discontinued the US’ large-scale war games with South Korea in order to avoid provoking North Korea and therefore keep the diplomatic channels that were recently opened between Washington and Pyongyang. Even so, he also said that North Korea has “no economic future if they heave nuclear weapons”, making it seem like he’s either still pressing ahead with his (or Bolton’s) maximum demand or is just reiterating his country’s preferred end game. At the same time, however, Trump curiously went after China and demanded that they remove all tariffs on American agricultural products.
Judging from these responses, Trump might think that China could have at the very least encouraged Kim beforehand to accept any deal (no matter how bad) than to play “hard to get” and reject the US’ maximum demands, hence the tougher line that he’s taking towards the trade war despite delaying the imposition of his planned tariffs last week on the basis that talks between the two were making progress. His statement about North Korea not having an economic future if it retains its nukes is obviously a signal to Kim, but so too is his decision to discontinue large-scale war games with South Korea, with these two coming off as a carrot-and-stick approach.
Considering all of this, it seems like Trump is conflicted over who to blame for what happened in Hanoi. He’s clearly pandering to Bolton a bit by ramping up the pressure on Xi, though he’s also going with his gut instinct in thinking that Kim isn’t entirely to blame by relieving the pressure upon him posed by the US’ large-scale war games with South Korea. At the same time, however, he also knows that Kim is his own man and is ultimately responsible for his own decisions, which is why he sent a message to him by saying that his country has no economic future if it keeps its nukes. Amidst all of this, Trump seems to be blaming everyone but himself.
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