The much-reported details of which nuclear facilities North Korea was willing to trade for which sanctions in Vietnam, in other words, are something of a red herring. What mattered is that the North Koreans viewed a partial nuclear agreement as the only way to move forward, and the Americans considered such a deal the surest way to move backward.
Read: How to deal with North Korea
“What North Korea has done consistently in the past is promised to denuclearize and then, by the way, not do it, to get economic benefits, which provide their economy a lifeline … and then allow them to go back to the nuclear program,” National Security Adviser John Bolton said after Hanoi.
Biegun came across in his briefing as “pretty confident that [the administration’s] basic strategy here is the only one that’ll actually work,” said Johnson. “Nobody can predict what Kim Jong Un will do, but I didn’t sense any concern or panic … He fully realizes how difficult this is.”
Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, said his sense from the briefing was that the administration’s strategy is “we’re going to keep pressing economic sanctions, we think it’s having a toll on them, and they’ll eventually come around” to “make this grand deal,” despite signs that North Korea is finding ways to bypass sanctions, and China, the North’s principal trading partner, isn’t enforcing them as strictly as it once was.
The administration is characterizing Trump’s walk in Hanoi as a message to North Korea “that partial [nuclear] dismantlement is just not an acceptable place to end up,” he told me, and North Korea, with its renewed work at nuclear-weapons-related sites in recent weeks, is sending its own message that “we’re going to keep going forward unless you adopt the partial vision that we have of getting rid of these sanctions in exchange for [a] first step” on denuclearization. Each side, he noted, is trying to convey to the other “that we’re really serious: Your position is not acceptable.”
As Victor Cha, who negotiated with the North Koreans during the George W. Bush administration, recently noted, each side appears to have learned the same lesson in Hanoi: “Pressure works.” (“The pressure’s not on us,” Biegun declared this week, even as he admitted that “we don’t know” what North Korea’s revived activity at nuclear sites signifies.)
The infinite-loop debate about whether to go big or go small in their talks, Cha added, harks “back to the sort of negotiations that we have been in for the past 25 years.”
The “two leaders have learned that love does not conquer all,” Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said in his conversation with Cha.
In holding out for a Big Deal with North Korea, Trump is banking on the country’s leaders deciding to do what his own intelligence officials (and top advisers, such as Bolton) say is highly unlikely: fully give up a nuclear program they have invested heavily in for decades and come to consider essential for the survival of their regime. What the United States is now angling for, a year into its diplomacy with North Korea, is to have it all: breakthroughs in negotiations at both the leader and lower levels, an indefinite and unrelenting pressure campaign that produces a swift grand bargain on peace and denuclearization.
Such a deal would be an utterly unprecedented accomplishment if Trump pulls it off. But if the dim history of nuclear negotiations with North Korea isn’t exactly repeating itself in the wake of the Vietnam summit, it’s starting to rhyme.