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The Three Problems with the North Korea Walk-Out

This wasn't "strength." It was getting out before losing everything.
February 28, 2019
The Three Problems with the North Korea Walk-Out
(Tuan Mark/Getty Images)

When the news came late Thursday night that denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea had broken down without a resolution, it didn’t take long for the president’s media allies to arrive at a consensus: Trump had demonstrated strength by walking away from a bad deal.

“The media are already playing the result as a loss for Trump, and his critics are mocking his purported skills as a deal-maker. That only shows how little they understand negotiation,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak sniffed. “‘No deal’ is better than a bad deal—and the best way to get a good deal is to show that you are willing to walk away if the other side cannot make concessions.” Now that Trump has shown he’s not going to tolerate diplomatic shenanigans, the argument goes, surely the next summit will see a real thaw from North Korea.

But there’s a problem with this argument: It ignores the dramatic concessions President Trump had already made to the Kim regime over the course of the short-lived summit. Because yes, no deal is better than a bad deal. But before walking the White House weakened its own negotiating position and strengthened North Korea’s.

(1) My Buddy the Tyrant

President Trump has long nursed a habit for sweet-talking the world’s murderous despots, and this week was no exception: The president took pains to talk about the tremendous future in store for a denuclearized Hermit Kingdom under its “great leader,” his personal friend Kim Jong-un.

So yes, this view is simply false on the merits. North Korea has no civil society, financial markets, or rule of law—all of which are important for economic growth. And if a psychotic murderer is truly your “friend,” well, that’s not a good thing. In response to these criticisms, Trump’s allies have protested that there’s nothing wrong with buttering up a negotiating partner and the goal of these negotiations is to disarm a nuclear threat, not assert our moral superiority. This is an ahistorical view: traditionally, successful resolutions to conflicts have come about because America leverages its strength, not because the American president forges a personal friendship with our adversary. But maybe the buttering-up approach works, so long it doesn’t require the president to waive crucial American interests. Which brings us to . . .

2. Otto Warmbier? Who?

During his Thursday press conference announcing the end of the summit, President Trump didn’t stop at simply saying nice things about Kim Jong-un. He absolved the North Korean leader of blame for the 2017 torture and death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea after the government accused him of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel.

“What happened is horrible. I really believe something very bad happened to [Warmbier], and I don’t believe the top leadership knew about it,” Trump told reporters. “I don’t believe that [Kim] would have allowed that to happen. Just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happen. But I really don’t believe he knew about it. He felt badly about it. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later.”

A buttering-up theory of negotiating tactics doesn’t explain this remark, which—just to be clear—acquits a murderous dictator of responsibility for the murder of an American citizen. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that Trump was playing the long long game here. Perhaps even this grotesque absolution for the murder of a U.S. citizen would be worth it in the end if it led to the disarmament of the Korean peninsula, right?

Well, bad news about that.

3. No Rush, We Trust You

In exchange for exactly zero concessions on North Korea’s part, the Trump administration also dropped one of its central disarmament demands: that the Kim regime disclose a full accounting of its weapons program to the United States. NBC News reported Thursday:

The decision to drop, for now, a significant component of a potential nuclear deal suggests a reality that U.S. intelligence assessments have stressed for months is shaping talks as they progress: North Korea does not intend to fully denuclearize, which is the goal Trump set for his talks with Kim.

Disclosure of a full, verifiable declaration of North Korea’s programs is the issue over which the last round of serious negotiations between Pyongyang and world powers, including the U.S., fell apart a decade ago.

There’s a reason why bad actors balk at accountability requirements: They make wriggling out of diplomatic agreements much more difficult. Conservatives used to know this: It was one of the central criticisms of the Obama administration’s Iran deal. And now the Trump administration has dropped the demand entirely. For free. With nothing—whatsoever—to show for it.

As the latest round of talks fell apart, President Trump waved off concerns that this was a setback for his pledge that North Korea would voluntarily denuclearize. “I am in no rush,” he said repeatedly. “Speed is not that important to me.” Hey, maybe the next round of talks will go better for the United States.

But it’s hard to see why they would. Kim Jong-un leaves Vietnam with his diplomatic position considerably strengthened. He got some of what he wanted without having to make any concessions. Trump’s “strength” was merely that he was able to get up from the table while he still had some chips left. That’s better than going bust. But it’s sure not a win.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.