What to make of the Hanoi fizzle? In seeking to answer that question we should be mindful that the full picture of the Hanoi summit has yet to emerge, but we have a fairly good idea of the broad outlines if not every little pixel. Doubtless the remaining ambiguities will become clearer over the coming days and weeks. I think the fizzle has potentially ominous implications that go well beyond the Korean peninsula.
In the lead up to Hanoi I wrote an article arguing that we appeared to be heading toward a fizzle. That article gets more age worthy with every passing day.
But well before, in 2017, I had argued what happened in that year represented an important, historical, sea change in international relations. North Korea is a small, poor, country. It has one of the lowest GDP per capita rates in the world. Yet in 2017 it successfully acquired the hydrogen bomb and the ability to deliver it to the contiguous United States. That means North Korea opened a type of “window of vulnerability” made possible by an ICBM with the range and throw weight to target America with high yield two stage thermonuclear warheads.
Since the heyday of Ancient Athens much about social and economic life has changed. Rome came and went. Feudalism came and went. Royal absolutism came and went. The silk road came and went. All that stuff, and more. But throughout history the essentials of international relations remained as depicted by Thucydides in the Melian dialogue. Hitherto the problem of Melos has arisen when a small state, to the detriment and suffering of its people, came to think it could resist Athens. History is littered with examples for the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. The Milesians put their trust in the gods after Athens demanded its incorporation into the Athenian empire as a vassal state whom it could exploit and profit from. We know what happened next. In the modern era those gods were democracy, liberalism, international law, socialism, internationalism, all those nice things. The Milesians of the world have fought valiantly but died all the same. Hanoi serves as a reminder of this.
The dialogue between the United States and North Korea is comparable to the dialogue between Athens and Melos in that America is mighty and North Korea is puny. But only now Melos has the hydrogen bomb. Yet the United States wants to negotiate with North Korea as if it were the Melos of yesteryear. Where heretofore it had been Melos that ignored the laws of political gravitation now it is Athens that ignores the new reality. When Melos doesn’t accept reality it’s the Milesians that suffer, but when Athens doesn’t accept reality, we’re all fucked. That, I submit, is what Hanoi showed. In a way that should not surprise us, for escalation dominance, first strike counterforce, missile defence, space weapons all show that Athens hasn’t fully accepted the reality of a world where Sparta has the bomb much less Melos.
The United States refuses to accept that the world has changed. States like North Korea can acquire the ability to destroy much of the urban-industrial infrastructure that underpins US society if they want to. The year 2017 demonstrated this. The problem was foreseen during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the most important conflict since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in part because it was then that nuclear and missile proliferation became a cottage industry in Athens and central to discourse on strategic affairs in the Agora. The idea being to keep Milesian hands off the bomb. Rather than accepting reality, that Melos has the bomb and this carries consequences, Americans show a ready propensity to believe comforting falsehoods, such as North Korea has yet to acquire a functioning reentry vehicle, that it has relied upon stolen technology rather than its own science and industry, offensive counterproliferation provides preemptive strike capabilities, and missile defences can save the day if worse comes to worse.
Another comforting falsehood is what I have repeatedly referred to as the nuclear obsession underpinning the US-North Korea peace talks. Here the United States has largely adhered to an old concept from previous administrations, namely complete, verified, and irreversible dismantlement or CVID. That’s now dressed up as FFVD (final, fully verified denuclearisation) but it’s essentially the same thing. Typically, CVID has been presented as a demand that North Korea needs to fulfil prior to the US even entering negotiations, let alone making concessions. Something Thucydides would have well understood. From Singapore that has been modified to the requirement North Korea completes FFVD and then the US makes significant concessions. Both positions are highly asymmetric, and they essentially follow on from straight power considerations. A great power, let alone the hegemon, is not to engage in a diplomatic process involving equal reciprocation with a small state like North Korea. There’s an important caveat here to which I return.
To understand what happened at Hanoi we need to get a handle on the leadup to the summit. Two factors are of significance here. The first is the widespread reporting of US North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun’s January remarks at Stanford University. Those reports had North Korea offering to go beyond what it pledged at the last inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in at Pyongyang. Namely, dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for suitable, although unspecified, concessions from the United States. It became clear not long thereafter that Pyongyang was offering Yongbyon for sanctions relief. But Biegun and all the post Stanford media reports had North Korea now offering not just Yongbyon but all its fissile material production facilities. As can be seen in my post at the time (linked above) there existed plenty of reasons to doubt this, and good reason to think that Kim’s position at Hanoi would be no different to what he pledged in the Pyongyang Declaration.
So it was.
The second was a two page memo from the North Korean mission to the United Nations circulated to the UN World Food Programme. That memo stated North Korea faces a food production shortfall this year of 1.4 million tonnes and has been compelled to almost halve food rations on account of “high temperatures, drought, floods and United Nations sanctions.” According to the United Nations, “a total of 10.3 million people – almost half the population – are in need and some 41 percent of North Koreans are undernourished.” In 2018 humanitarian aid to North Korea ground to a halt, attributable to the sanctions despite what the relevant UN resolutions might say about their intent. The North Korean memo underscored the importance that Pyongyang attaches to sanctions relief.
Immediately after the collapse of the Hanoi summit President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference where they misrepresented its proceedings, a mischaracterisation widely accepted. That, of course, was somewhat strange given Trump’s ignorance of the very idea of truth which by now is well known. The immediate US position was that Hanoi collapsed because Kim wanted full and complete dismantlement of sanctions in return for the disablement of Yongbyon. But North Korea, unexpectedly and rather unprecedentedly, then hit the air waves calling Trump out on his flagrant lie. North Korea offered Yongbyon in exchange for partial, not complete, sanctions relief. Specifically, North Korea’s call for partial sanctions relief was limited to sanctions that were imposed from 2016 targeting its civilian economy so making the deal offered a very calibrated one. The United States refused to accept this deal. It’s reasonable to infer that the widespread expectation that a successful outcome at Hanoi would involve North Korea fully halting fissile material production played a role here. The Trump-Pompeo press conference alluded to this when Pompeo, in response to questions from David Sanger of The New York Times, stated that if Kim’s offer of Yongbyon for partial sanctions relief was accepted the press corps would have said the deal was a bad one, that Trump was had by Kim and so on. That charge is entirely accurate as can be seen from the post Hanoi media reports which hold that Trump was right to walk from the deal Kim offered. That has fast become almost a consensus opinion.
However, it is not hard to see that Trump’s rejection of the deal was irrational. Accepting the deal on offer would have contributed to further confidence building, hence risk reduction, on the Korean peninsula. Engaging in a step-by-step reciprocal diplomatic process takes the heat and tension out of US-North Korea relations thus lowering the probability of nuclear use. Furthermore, an agreement provides more space for North and South Korea to continue with inter-Korean rapprochement. The Korean War is the source of nuclear danger on the Korean peninsula not the warheads, missiles, and production complex. It surely should be well known by now that North Korea is not going to disarm in one fell swoop, if at all. Why is post 2016 sanctions relief specifically targeting the civilian economy in exchange for the reduction of nuclear danger seen as a “bad” deal? Clearly not on rational security grounds. There are two main reasons, it appears to me.
The first can be found in Trump himself. David Sanger and Edward Wong have an article at The New York Times providing a version of Hanoi that focuses on Trump. Sanger is to be taken with a heavy grain of salt. His articles contain kernels of truth though often are surrounded by falsehoods, and this article is a classic example. The kernel of truth is Trump’s obsession with achieving a grand bargain by dint of his superhuman deal making prowess. Something perhaps Nobel Prize worthy. That fits in with Trump’s only ideological principle; Me! The picture Sanger paints is of Trump, thinking himself the deal maker extraordinaire, offering Kim full sanctions relief in exchange for Kim completely dismantling his nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons infrastructure. Trump is depicted as having hubris enough to think he, and only he, could pull it off to the acclaim and astonishment of world opinion. He even gets to one up the hated Obama one, an added bonus. Perhaps the expectation that Kim would bring to the table more than just Yongbyon fuelled this hubristic expectation on Trump’s part. I rather suspect it did. Notice also the mendacity of the man. Trump immediately attributed the collapse of Singapore to Kim’s demand of full sanctions relief, when in fact it was he, Trump, that offered full sanctions relief. It also demonstrates the degree to which the western media is prepared to accept the claims of a US president, no matter his mendacity, should Washington’s prestige be riding on it.
But that doesn’t explain why much of intellectual and media opinion regards Trump walking away from North Korea’s offer as being rational, when it clearly wasn’t. The real story is here, not in Trump’s vacuous head. It won’t do for Sanger and co to singularly focus on Trump. It seems to me that this puzzle is best viewed through the prism of Thucydides. Athens does not engage in an equal diplomatic process with Melos, even when Melos has the H-bomb because that undermines the power and prestige of the empire. During the Cuban Missile Crisis President Kennedy stated that the odds of nuclear war were “one third to even.” The Cuban Missile Crisis was essentially centred upon the prestige of US power (but also Kennedy’s domestic political prestige) and those high odds of nuclear war were readily accepted when the quarantine was put in place and enforced . The minority position, of General LeMay for instance, was to attack Cuba thus increasing the odds quite appreciably. Whether Kennedy’s odds were objectively true is beside the point (they could quite well have been higher rather than lower). When its power and prestige is at stake Washington D.C. is prepared to run odds of nuclear war it itself regards to be one third to even. That’s irrational, of course, but power always comes before reason. There’s a little paradox about America that lurks here. When much of US society looks at Trump they don’t like what they see. The self before all else, the ignorant narcissism, the hubris of power, the stark hypocrisy, and the like. But this is the thing. When the world looks at America it sees in America what America sees in Trump. When the power and prestige of Trump is on the line, Trump is prepared to walk no matter how irrational that should be. That we know. But so is the United States, if by United States we take to be intellectual opinion and commentary, and I put to you that is what the widespread positive assessment of the Hanoi walkout shows.
What’s intriguing here is Kim Jong-un’s take on all this. North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui has twice, in an impromptu press conference hot on the heels of the Trump-Pompeo presser, and in an interview for South Korean media outlets, has stated that Kim finds US calculations to be odd. A report by Yonhap News Agency states, “Choe said she also got the impression that Kim feels ‘very odd’ about the way the U.S. calculates the price of the Yongbyon dismantlement.” The North Korean offer, as noted above, was a rational one. The US pockets Yongbyon, with the possibility of more in the future dangled as an implication, in exchange for limited sanctions relief for the civilian economy. We have a curious reversal. It is we that have long held North Korea to be irrational and somewhat odd. Yet here we have North Korea regarding us to be irrational and somewhat odd.
The important caveat to the usual insistence on complete dismantlement, mentioned above, can be found in the Singapore summit. There the United States agreed to a process of denuclearisation involving a reciprocal step-by-step process. We know this because the communique uses the word “denuclearisation,” which implies a process, and furthermore it is explicit to the side agreements reached in the negotiation. We had the North agreeing to refrain from further missile and nuclear testing, shutting down the facility for hot testing large liquid propelled rocket-missile engines at Tongchang-ri, and Washington agreeing to suspend military exercises and pledging to sign up to a declaration on the end of the Korean War. But the United States proceeded to violate that agreement. The declaration did not come, the US suspended military exercises but then reinstituted some of them, in talks between Kim and Pompeo in Pyongyang Pompeo insisted upon CVID or FFVD if you will prior to Washington agreeing to any significant US concessions. The US position at Hanoi was contrary to what was agreed at Singapore. For North Korea Hanoi was about further implementing the process both parties signed up to in Singapore, namely step-by-step confidence building. This can be easily seen through the statements the North Koreans have made after the Hanoi fizzle where they clearly say their Hanoi offer was couched in the reciprocal step-by-step process of denuclearisation agreed to at Singapore. North Korea does not have sufficient confidence in the United States to agree to a deal that has it engaging in irreversible actions while Washington is obligated to engage in reversible actions. Given the history, that too is a reasonable position and one that should have been expected of Pyongyang at Hanoi. Moreover, we don’t know anything about the timing. Do the sanctions go first or does CVID come first? Should it transpire that the latter was to come first, then Hanoi wasn’t a fizzle rather a sick joke. In the Trump-Pompeo press conference timing was cited as an issue, which suggests Hanoi might well have been a joke.
The Singapore summit was the Me! summit. The United States agreed to the step-by-step process, it seems, because Donald Trump needed a document which he could say was made possible by his deal making prowess alone. He couldn’t get upfront disarmament, but he settled for something less lest he walk from Singapore looking like the idiot he is and then proceeded to over sell the agreement even as he was reneging on it. Me! At Hanoi he went for a historical big bang deal to cover himself in glory for time immemorial, and when he couldn’t get his big Tonka toy he sulked off. Me!2. Me, me, me, me. It’s the only thing Trump cares about.
The above considerations focus on rationality, which is the universal concern of analysts and commentators. But the moral domain is wholly neglected. What happened at Hanoi was not only irrational but deeply immoral. As noted just less than half of North Koreans are undernourished, and about half require food aid. This year, as noted, Pyongyang reports there shall be a food shortfall and rations have been by around a half. The regime in North Korea is concerned for its survival, one of the reasons it has developed a nuclear deterrent capability. It is loath to give that guarantee up, certainly not in one irreversible step and that’s quite understandable. The US insisted on irreversible and complete dismantlement at Hanoi, that is CVID, in exchange for lifting all the sanctions. Washington thereby offered Pyongyang a version of the Libya deal offered Gaddafi for complete dismantlement is irreversible yet lifting sanctions is eminently reversible. What else, if anything, Washington offered is not clear. The Hanoi offer was a nonstarter, and it is highly unethical to insist upon an unreasonable negotiating position whilst holding an undernourished population to ransom. Moreover, economic sanctions that target the civilian economy of an undernourished society ruled by a dictatorial elite are in and of themselves intrinsically immoral. The population of North Korea cannot be blamed for the actions of their government and they should not be made accountable for those actions through semi starvation. Furthermore, North Koreans have inalienable human rights that in no way can be made contingent upon what Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump consider to be the proper form of denuclearisation. Anybody that does not understand this, and that includes just about everybody in the mainstream, does not understand, or has no regard, for the concept human rights. Economic sanctions that target the civilian population are one of the more significant human rights violations in North Korea. If you put all this together you come to a startling realisation. Trump is prepared to stroke his own megalomania through the hunger of millions. Me! Washington is prepared to hold fast to the credibility of its power also through the hunger of millions. Me!2.
What happens now? As I have written often here, the future is better influenced than predicted. The future, to no small degree, will depend upon us. Those analysts and commentators that have fallen for the narrative that only Trump can engage in high level diplomacy with North Korea need to acknowledge they have been taken in by a person that is both a conman and a complete idiot. The future of risk reduction and peace on the Korean peninsula, but not just there, lies in the hands of a progressive social movement in the United States. A Bernie Sanders would do more for peace in Korea, and the world, than a Donald Trump. In recognising this one recognises that the future lies in one’s own hands for Bernie Sanders the man and Bernie Sanders the movement are two different though interdependent things. An important political prerequisite for this is our changing the way we think and talk about weird little North Korea. For Washington the nuclear danger North Korea poses is the danger of Melos with the bomb. That’s a problem of power. That’s not the danger America sees, which is more about an irrational state that is beyond deterrence. North Korea’s political system, different to ours but not unfamiliar to us given that we have dealt with national Stalinist states in the past, has little to do with its external behaviour. It was Thucydides, after all, who taught us that there’s no correlation between the internal structure of a state and its external behaviour for Athens and Sparta, radically opposed in constitution, pursued not dissimilar foreign policies. North Korea is a rational actor that can be deterred, and which can and does reach diplomatic agreements of mutual interest.
To rely on a moronic hustler for nuclear risk reduction is the height of folly, and it’s surprising that otherwise savvy analysts should have fallen for the only Trump could go to Pyongyang charade. Their confusion is made by drawing a link between real substantive talks and hot air nonsense. To say that Trump is given to the latter is not an argument against the former, although it is too often taken to be just that.
Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un via a KCNA statement, have expressed a desire for the peace process to continue. However, it’s hard to see how that can happen unless Washington drops its hard line stance on upfront nuclear dismantlement. Vice Minister Choe has stated that it’s her impression Kim has changed his views about the degree to which the United States is committed to reaching an agreement. She has stated the deal Pyongyang offered at Hanoi is as good as it gets, certainly for now. The Athenian delegation to Melos told the Milesians the rational thing would be for them to get what they can get. The problem at Hanoi was that when Melos has the bomb it suddenly becomes rational for Athens to get what it can get. But, given power trumps reason, Athens doesn’t want what it can get. It wants more, to paraphrase Biegun. Reality is something one is free to ignore. One is free to ignore the reality of gravity by jumping off Trump Tower. That is a freedom one possesses, but that freedom has consequences if acted upon.
Deadlock in the diplomatic process risks the collapse of inter-Korean détente and rapprochement as the US position on denuclearisation can, and has, blocked substantive progress. Inter-Korean détente is a major factor behind Pyongyang’s pursuit of denuclearisation talks with the United States. Should US intransigence block progress, and North Koreans continue to live in hunger, Kim intimated in his new year address that Pyongyang would pursue a new course. What that course might be remains a mystery. Kim Jong-un is puzzled by how Washington calculates, so we are told. Kim does not understand, if that’s true, that Washington is prepared to run odds of nuclear war of one third to even should its power and prestige be at stake. He thinks those odds are lower. Just how high does Washington consider to be too high? Do we want Kim to learn this empirically as he embarks upon his new course?
A third? No. A half? No. Two thirds? No. Three quarters? No. Nine tenths? No. Ninety nine hundredths? Quite possibly.