The New York Times lead front page article on Sunday was headlined “How the Trump-Kim Summit Failed: Big Threats, Big Egos, Bad Bets.” As usual, the anti-Trump media have it wrong. President Trump's decision to walk away from the Hanoi summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un rather than accept a bad deal was a sign of success, not failure. It would only have been a failure if President Trump had offered significant U.S. concessions in exchange for baby steps and a vague roadmap of future North Korean actions towards a distant goal of ambiguously defined “denuclearization.” As President Trump said during a press conference following the abrupt end of the summit, “sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”
The North Korean regime is reeling from the succession of tough sanctions imposed on broad sectors of North Korea’s economy since President Trump took office. These sanctions, by the way, represented a triumph of Trump administration multilateralism, as even China and Russia joined in the UN Security Council resolutions imposing the sanctions. No previous administration had achieved anything close, including especially the Obama administration.
Kim Jong Un came to the Hanoi summit with only one offer. As the New York Times described the offer, “The North would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, three square miles of aging facilities at the heart of the nuclear program, for an end to the sanctions most harmful to its economy, those enacted since 2016.” President Trump rejected this offer as inadequate because it omitted the dismantling of all ballistic missiles, nuclear bombs, and hidden nuclear production sites located elsewhere in the country. Kim's offer did not even include North Korea’s commitment to submit an inventory of all its nuclear weapons, as the Trump administration has previously requested. Instead, President Trump presented his own “grand bargain” proposal calling for North Korea to completely denuclearize as defined in a document that President Trump handed over to Kim Jong Un. In short, the Trump administration is holding fast to its demand that the North Korean regime get rid of all its nuclear weapons, material and facilities, as the condition for lifting the American-led sanctions that are crippling North Korea’s economy.
While North Korea has had some success, with Russian and Chinese assistance, in evading portions of the sanctions, there is little doubt that the regime is still feeling a lot of pain. The sanctions are what brought Kim Jong Un to the bargaining table in the first place. Giving his regime significant relief in return for half measures would only serve to encourage Kim to harden his terms in any subsequent negotiations and to provide his military with more funds to further develop the regime’s nuclear arsenal.
North Korea has used the Yongbyon nuclear complex as a bargaining chip in the past. Prior presidents have taken the bait, offering economic concessions in return for empty promises that never came to fruition. The Obama regime’s policy of “strategic patience” and acceptance of a moratorium on certain activities at the Yongbyon facility in return for food aid ended in failure. President Trump did not take the bait. He also did not settle for a symbolic gesture of a formal end-of-war declaration to replace the current armistice.
When the Trump administration pronounces that no deal is better than a bad deal, it means what it says. When the Obama administration made similar pronouncements during the negotiations leading up to the nuclear deal with Iran, they turned out to be meaningless. In November 2013, for example, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that "no deal is better than a bad deal." In March 2015, then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared, “Now I want to be very clear: a bad deal is worse than no deal. And if that is the choice then there will be no deal.” In July 2015, the Obama administration accepted the disastrous, loophole riddled nuclear deal with Iran. In addition to granting major concessions to the Iranian regime as the price for getting it to finally agree to the nuclear deal, the Obama administration allowed the Iranian regime to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief and cash upfront.
One major concession by the Obama administration involved verifiable international inspections. Then-Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes had told CNN, during an interview aired on April 6, 2015, that under the deal’s terms then still being negotiated “you will have anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access as it relates to the nuclear facilities that Iran has." He added that “if we see a site that we need to inspect on a military facility, we can get access to that site and inspect it. So if it's a suspicious site that we believe is related to its nuclear efforts, we can get access and inspect that site through the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency].” After the nuclear deal was finalized in July 2015 without such access guarantees, Rhodes shamelessly denied that anytime, anywhere inspections were ever considered as part of the negotiations. “We never sought in this negotiation the capacity for so-called anytime, anywhere,” Rhodes said on July 14, 2015.
The Obama administration also made a last-minute concession by agreeing to keep out of the text of the nuclear deal itself any prohibitions on Iranian testing of ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons. The Obama administration’s explanation was that the missiles had become a separate issue, to be dealt with under a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the nuclear deal. This resolution actually made things worse than they had been previously. It replaced clear legally binding Security Council prohibitions imposed on Iran’s ballistic missile program with a weak, legally meaningless declaration in an annex that simply “calls upon” Iran not to undertake any activity such as development and test launches related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons for eight years. Iran has tested ballistic missiles since then, including missiles with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” emblazoned on the sides.
In sum, success in American diplomacy is not measured by pieces of paper that gloss over important issues and end up making matters worse than they were before. Success is measured by actions that take the long view and always keep the advancement of U.S. national security interests front and center. As Kenny Rogers once sang , “If you're gonna play the game, boy You gotta learn to play it right You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
Obama did not walk away from the Iran nuclear deal negotiations when he should have. Instead, he made dangerous concessions and gave up the leverage of economic sanctions upfront. President Trump refused a bad offer from the North Koreans and walked away, keeping the tough economic sanctions on North Korea in place. He did so without closing the door to future negotiations with North Korea while, in the meantime, reaping the peace dividends of North Korea's continued suspension of nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches.
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