CFR experts analyze the outcomes of the second summit between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27– 28, including the potential denuclearization of North Korea, peace negotiations on the Korean peninsula, and what the location of the summit means for Vietnam.
STARES: Well, good day, everybody. Welcome to the CFR conference call on the Hanoi summit that’s just concluded. My name is Paul Stares. I am a senior fellow at the Council and director of its Center for Preventive Action. I am joined by Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies here as well as director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, as well as Josh Kurlantzick, who is a senior fellow also at the Council for Southeast Asia.
So this discussion is going to be on the record—I want to emphasize that at the outset—and I am going to begin with you first, Scott. Now, the dust is still settling and we are still, I think, trying to find out exactly what happened and why the summit did not conclude in the way I think a lot of people hoped, at least President Trump hoped.
Tell me, in retrospect, was this sort of almost doomed to failure because of the—this huge gulf in differences between the two sides and, frankly, people were over optimistic that they could be bridged at the last minute? Or did something happen in Hanoi that really changed the outcome?
Can you—can you kind of try to parse what we know already about what happened and try to reconcile some of the different accounts that are already starting to come out? I saw just recently that Foreign Minister Ri of North Korea said something that seemed to diverge from what President Trump said was the central sticking point about sanctions relief. Could you just try to give us your take on what happened?
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, I’ll try. It’s a little bit difficult because I think it is still early days. But, you know, this was, as was the case in advance of the Singapore process, a very short working-level engagement between the U.S. and North Korean special representatives that really only began once the summit was announced.
And so there was only a few weeks for the two sides to hammer out some pretty big issues. And, you know, then there’s the question of how that working-level process was or was not connected to the leader-level process. And so we’ll have to wait and see exactly. We’ve got a readout from the president. Now we’ve got a press conference from the North Korean foreign minister. I’m sure there will be additional official statements from the DPRK.
But it’s pretty clear that there is a trust gap and, clearly, a gap over what is acceptable in terms of a fundamental trade on the issue of the scope of denuclearization versus the scope of sanctions relief. And I think the important thing may be that with the breakdown it actually provides a little bit more transparency to that gap and, hopefully, will provide a basis of time which working-level negotiations can continue.
Another way of putting this is that the Singapore Summit did not yield a working-level process even though it was defined as successful. If the Hanoi summit yields a working-level process even though it is considered a failure, then it actually will have made a contribution.
STARES: So both the president and Secretary Pompeo were still fairly upbeat that progress can be made. In fact, they said quite a bit of progress had been made at the summit. But now I don’t know whether that was just pure spin. But what’s your best bet on how things will play out now and both in the short term and maybe the long term, because there has been some sort of projections that things could really go badly—that testing could begin and tensions once again ratchet up—while other say, no, this is actually not a bad thing—it would have been worse if they had agreed to something that, frankly, was not in the U.S. interest and that clearly we have to go back to the negotiating table and work out our differences. So give us a sense of how this is going to play out now in the coming days and weeks.
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, you know, in some ways, a small deal might have actually covered over some of the fundamental gaps between the U.S. and North Korean positions, whereas now I believe that this process has generated some more transparency around that gap and also it has provided the U.S. and North Korea an opportunity to better stand—better understand what each other wants. And so I hope that there is an early resumption of a working-level process between the U.S. and North Korea. I also anticipate that the South Korean side and President Moon—who arguably had a lot to lose as a result of this outcome—I think South Korea is likely to step up its efforts to try to play some kind of mediating role between the United States and North Korea as a way of trying to put the situation back together.
And actually, in an environment in which there’s no deal, it’s also possible that we can see China taking a more active role rather than a more complacent role because there’s going to be greater concern on the part of Beijing about the possibility that the situation could deteriorate further.
STARES: Right. So I do hope that we can get into some of the regional reaction to what happened in Hanoi in our discussion later. But first, I want to turn now to Josh.
And, you know, I think it was fairly obvious why these summits were being held in Singapore and Hanoi. And the whole point I think has been to showcase the amazing economic progress that both countries have made and to demonstrate to North Korea that if they open up their economies, you know, all this could be available to them. And so, Josh, was, you know, was this a realistic expectation in terms of expecting North Korea to really be so impressed by what Chairman Kim Jong-un could see there that, you know, this would bring about an opening up? Or was that really just unrealistic?
KURLANTZICK: I mean, I think it’s—I think it’s only a little bit realistic. I would add that I think another reason for these locations, obviously in addition to just the logistics, is that the Trump administration does want to show that the U.S. is still playing a major diplomatic role in Southeast Asia, which is really the region that’s at the height of U.S.-China contestation today. And this allows them to do so, it allowed them to do so, and also demonstrated that Vietnam is playing a lot much larger regional security role.
I mean, I think that was—there’s maybe some mild hope for that. But in reality, for the North Korean regime to emulate what happened in Vietnam over the past thirty years or even what happened in China, but even more so what happened in Vietnam, is pretty unrealistic. For one, the Vietnamese government has really sort of prevented any sort of political consolidation at the top, any sort of dynastic leadership. It’s a very authoritarian state, but they have pretty contested politics within the regime and they have allowed for—allowed for multiple leadership changes. Being like Vietnam—which have allowed for a degree of openness. Being like Vietnam would make it harder for the Kim regime to perpetuate its dynasty.
And secondly, Vietnam is actually—mainly, it’s a freer country economically than China, which isn’t necessarily saying that much. But adopting the type of reforms that have allowed Vietnam to make such significant economic progress and they’ve become a very significant actor in regional trade I think would be very, very challenging for North Korea without going along with it, a much more significant degree of societal openness as well, which exists in Vietnam, in an authoritarian state, and again would be probably fatal to the Kim regime.
STARES: Right. Do you—do you think—of course, the other I think symbolic attribute of Hanoi, of course, was that Vietnam was a former adversary. And there were some trade deals I believe signed with Boeing. So, again, I think the underline the idea that we can do business with former adversaries. So that, I think, was clearly in play. But given all the effort that was put into this, and frankly the little to show for it, can you expect that any other Southeast Asian country will ever host a summit for President Trump again, or—you know, this was—
KURLANTZICK: Well, I don’t think that that necessarily is the issue. I mean, for Vietnam this was a diplomatic boon. They came off well. It’s not their fault whatever the U.S.-North Korea issues are. They showed that they could host a major summit. I mean, Singapore has a long history of hosting major summits. There’s nothing new to that. Vietnam wants to show that it’s a bigger player in regional diplomacy. They actually in many ways have very closely aligned with the United States’ sort of regional strategy. And so I don’t think this is—I mean, I think—you know, and the costs aren’t necessarily completely borne by them. And so I don’t think that’s an issue. Vietnam came off looking well. I mean, you think Singapore looked fine, it looked fine for Singapore. The hammering out of the deal doesn’t reflect poorly on the host. So, no, I don’t—I mean, I don’t think they can host a summit in Malaysia, where Kim Jong-un supposedly ordered an assassination. But if they wanted to have a future summit in another Southeast Asian state, I don’t—I don’t—I don’t think that would—this would be a deterrent to that.
STARES: Right. Let me—let me just go back to Scott briefly before we open it up for Q&A. Now, the fact that there was some communique and a pre-agreed statement or agreement of some kind, assumingly gotten lost in a lot of the post-summit discussion. Have you any clue what that entailed, what was actually agreed? Was this the so-called end-of-war statement start? And if so, do you see that emerging sometime soon as possibly being used to move things along again in the future?
SNYDER: You know, so I think that a lot of the reporting in advance of the summit, you know, seemed to suggest that the Singapore declaration template would be used in order to fashion a joint statement, and that there would be an effort. Special Representative Biegun’s slated to pursue simultaneous and parallel progress in each of the four areas. So what that means is that in the area of a new U.S.-North Korea relationship, it’s likely that they were prepared to come to agreement on some kind of liaison office presence, or an attempt to establish it, in the area of peace. That would be a peace declaration of one form or another. And then obviously the denuclearization issue is the big one where the sticking point was. And that’s really related to scope of denuclearization versus scope of sanctions relaxation.
And then fourth, I was anticipating that there would be some announcement of additional progress, or an attempt to pursue progress on recovery of POW/MIAs. And so all that is now set aside for the time being. The framework, I think, is probably still in place. But really, the critical issue boils down to—and I think this was the key sticking point—if we can take President Trump’s remarks and take DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s remarks as a guide, it was really about is this initially a denuclearization deal that would involve just Yongbyon, or Yongbyon-plus-alpha, with the U.S. pushing for some additional inspection of facilities beyond just Yongbyon. In return for—in advance of the summit, the expectation was that maybe there would be a very specific sanctions exemption for some inter-Korean projects.
But instead, it appears that the North Korean side was much more ambitious in their demands on sanctions relief. According to President Trump, calling for a complete dismantlement of the sanctions regime. According to Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, a request to the U.S. to set aside the last five of the eleven U.N. Security Council resolutions that had been passed against North Korea’s program.
STARES: OK. Well, why don’t we open it up for questions from those others on the line. Just a reminder, this session is on the record. I’m talking to Scott Snyder and Josh Kurlantzick, both senior fellows here at the Council. If you could, I think, get in line and ask your questions, I’ll hand off now to the person managing the Q&A process. I will hopefully jump in at points to follow up if there’s something I think would be interesting to discuss further.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take our first question from Jeffrey Toobin with the New Yorker.
Q: Hi. Can you hear me?
KURLANTZICK: Yeah, we can hear you.
Q: I have a question about the whole issue of the declaration of the end of the Korean War, the armistice, the sort of official end of the war, which apparently was one issue on the table. How significant do you think that is? And what would be the real significance if that were ever achieved? And why don’t you think it was achieved at the summit?
STARES: You want to take that, Scott?
SNYDER: Yeah. The declaration of the end of the Korean War, really I think that what I was anticipating and I think what most press reports pointed to was the possibility of some kind of statement—it would have been a bilateral statement, since South Korea and China were not present—that would essentially express an aspiration, a symbolic gesture that would suggest that the U.S. and North Korea were working to put aside mutual hostility. And so it would have been—it could potentially have been viewed as a symbolic opening of a process that would then be followed up on by negotiations to actually bring a legal end to the Korean War and bring in other parties.
And in terms of significance and implications, well, it would be a sign of overcoming hostility, but a lot of people were concerned about the implications for U.S. presence—military presence in South Korea. I actually think that the bigger issue that may influence the future posture in South Korea is the actual steps towards tension reduction that are being taken—that are taking place as part of implementation of an inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement. But there were, you know, expressions of—I think some expressions of concern in some quarters about that issue.
And, you know, in the end it looks like the North Koreans were more interested in sanctions relief than they were in getting that declaration. And so I think that’s interesting that the North Koreans, even though they’ve talked a lot about the importance of stepping back from a relationship of mutual hostility, with regards to that particular statement it doesn’t seem to have been as animating as the sanctions pressure and desire for sanctions reduction in terms of the focus of their approach.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Doyle McManus with the Los Angeles Times.
Q: Thanks very much. Can you hear me?
STARES: Yes, Doyle. Go ahead.
Q: OK. Two questions for Scott, if I may.
First question is, yeah, as you—as you mentioned, the North Korean foreign minister said that their offer—that their ask was only for partial sanctions relief, not total sanctions relief, and that’s a very different picture than the one President Trump provided. There’s pretty widespread agreement among American thinkers on this stuff that, well, if the—if the—if the deal was as President Trump presented it, then he was right to walk away. Does the North Korean foreign minister’s account change that assessment significantly?
KURLANTZICK: Well, it’s important, I think, after these meetings to make sure that we hear from both sides. And the North Korean foreign minister’s statement is the first step, but I also expect to see a statement, a media statement in KCNA that will provide additional detail with regards to the North Korean view of what happened at the meeting. And we’ll hear, I think, additional statements through other channels on the U.S. side to get a little bit more clarity, you know, on this.
But I think that the core sticking point may have actually been that, you know, back in the fall after Singapore, the U.S. essentially wanted North Korea to give a comprehensive declaration. We wanted to see the entire pie. And Yongbyon was essentially, back in September, and Pyongyang, an offer by North Korea to give the United States a piece of the pie. And so this is really a negotiation I think about, what is the size of the pie and what is the price that will be paid for it?
And on the U.S. side, I think that the appetite for greater transparency on North Korea’s nuclear program went beyond Yongbyon. And I think that was very clear in Stephen Biegun’s Stanford speech where he talked about Yongbyon inspections and warned—and described Yongbyon as a nonessential element of the North Korean program.
And then I think it’s interesting that the North Korean foreign minister provided an alternative description of the North Korean position on sanctions relief. It’s hard to know whether that represents the North Korean realization that in the leaders’ meeting there was overreach or whether in fact this is the more factual description of what the North Koreans were after. But in any case, there’s clearly a gap on price and on the size of the piece of the pie that the U.S. wants. And I’m actually optimistic based on the idea that it looks like the negotiations are continuing in the sense that the North Korean foreign minister’s statement could be viewed as a further effort to clarify the size of the gap between the two sides.
STARES: If I could jump in, Scott.
Sorry, Doyle, if I could just jump in.
If something along the lines of shutting down Yongbyon, opening it up for inspections for some partial sanctions relief, would that, in your opinion, be a good basis for moving ahead, at least, you know, making sure that we don’t fall backwards in the process? Or really does it have to be more comprehensive in both sense for this really to be worthwhile?
SNYDER: It could be an acceptable first step, but I think that what the U.S. was looking for was an assurance that it wouldn’t be the last step and, essentially, an effort by the U.S. to have a process that moves more quickly and takes fewer bites rather than getting bogged down in some kind of salami-slicing tactics. I think Special Representative Biegun said as much in a press briefing from Hanoi about the desire of the U.S. to take larger bites as part of this process.
STARES: Doyle, did you just want to add something, a follow up?
Q: No, actually, Paul, you asked my follow-up question. But I—but I—but I will ask, Scott, will we really know whether the momentum has been moved forwards or backwards by how soon working-level contacts are scheduled? And is it striking that not only was there no joint statement of any kind, but not even—not even a statement of when the—they get together at the lower level?
SNYDER: I think that in the past—I don’t—I don’t know how quickly it’s going to be possible for there to be a return to a working-level negotiation process, but I think it’s absolutely clear at this point that a good working-level negotiation process is going to be an essential prerequisite to be able to grapple with the gaps between the two sides that have to be bridged in order to justify a further leaders meeting.
STARES: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Deirdre Shesgreen with USA Today.
Q: Thank you so much for taking my question.
Did you see a gap between what the foreign minister described as their offer on Yongbyon and what Trump described? Because it sounded—there were—you know, it sounded a little bit more extensive to me. But I would like your reading on that.
And then could you just elaborate on the foreign minister’s statement? Scott, you said you weren’t sure if he was either trying to scale back because they realized they’d overreached, or if that was more realistic. I mean, how much stock do you put in his statement?
KURLANTZICK: Well, this is an initial statement by the foreign minister following a failed meeting. And actually, we really haven’t seen this circumstance with North Korea before. So one interesting, you know, side issue is, you know, how do the North Koreans cope with failure at the summit level? You know, what are the reverberations in terms of what this means and in terms of how Kim Jong-un’s leadership is viewed? But, you know, this particular statement as an initial statement I think is—it’s designed in part to do some face-saving, in part to clarify the North Korean position. And there is a gap between what the foreign minister said and what President Trump said in his press conference, and so we’re going to have to dig a little bit deeper in order to find out what the specifics were on that and what the source of that particular misunderstanding was.
But I would just note that there are two areas. One is on the scope of sanctions relief and the other is a clear gap in the scope of what North Korea was offering versus what the U.S. was asking for. And I actually think that that might end up being the core issue that was unresolved as part of the effort to push toward an agreement.
STARES: Scott, is it—is it realistic to expect there to be some delay before we really know where North Korea’s going to move next on this? Just because I’m assuming Kim Jong-un is back on the train. It’s going to take a long time for him to return to Pyongyang. And is that a fair assumption, or can we assume that they have the communications system worked out to manage this?
SNYDER: Well, it could take some time. I do believe that the North Korean team, the critical members are all present on the trip, and so they will have a lot of time to chew over what happened.
But let me just go back and say one word about Yongbyon versus Yongbyon-plus, because Yongbyon is what the North Koreans offered. It’s what they have offered in the past. International inspections of Yongbyon is nothing new. And I think that what the U.S. indirectly may have been trying to get at by apparently pursuing Yongbyon-plus-alpha, some additional sites, is a way of uncovering intent. And so I think that the North Korean hesitancy to embrace a broader scope of denuclearization from a U.S. perspective, you know, may be perceived as an indicator of intent, and therefore may have provided a sense of justification with regards to a reason for walking away.
STARES: OK. Josh, if there’s any moment you want to jump in here, please do, if you have anything you want to add.
STARES: Otherwise, I can go on to the—on to the next question.
KURLANTZICK: No, it’s fine. People want to ask questions about North Korea. I understand.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Q: Thank you. Thanks for doing this.
I’m wondering, Scott, were you surprised that the—the U.S. side seems to have been surprised. I mean, there was the provision for the announcement of the joint declaration, the lunch. Why would they have been blindsided by this if the spadework had been done beforehand and how much do you attribute the failure to the president’s style of personal diplomacy, believing that he could change things himself at the last minute?
And, lastly, do you see the kind of staffing and future staff work being set up that can cope with the complexities of this U.S.-North Korean future talks?
SNYDER: Great question. That’s a really hard question to answer because, obviously, this entire process is distinctive compared to the normal diplomatic processes. It’s distinctive because of President Trump but it’s also distinctive because of the North Koreans and the fact that decision-making is concentrated at a high level in the North Korean system. And it’s also a complicated question because there’s been a lot of suspicion that the North Koreans, as they pursued this process, have identified that if only they can get to the top and do an end-around around working-level bureaucrats then maybe they can get what they want from Trump.
And so I think that, you know, that really makes it complicated in terms of identifying specific root cause. In a way, I think they all feed into each other and I think the best way to address this really is to empower the working-level negotiators, presumably, in a process that also would engage in not summitry but serial contacts with each leader by the working-level representatives, a kind of shuttle diplomacy between the U.S. and Pyongyang, if you will, if the two sides can identify a basis and feel that there is a reason to believe that the remaining gaps that have been exposed much more clearly now can actually be closed.
KURLANTZICK: I would add one minor thing to that, which is just that the White House administration has struggled since the beginning and continues to struggle with staffing, with a few exceptions, on all issues related to Northeast and Southeast Asia. The bench is very shallow and that has effect on every aspect of their Asian diplomacy including previous summits, regional summits, dealing with Southeast Asian states, et cetera. That’s just a huge problem, though.
Q: Well, I mean, just to follow up briefly, did it surprise you that the U.S. side seems to have been caught flat? I mean, obviously, there was the belief that the gap could be closed and so Kim’s steadfastness on sanctions, however much they were, or steadfastness on Yongbyon, there was no—there was the expectation that that was going to be offered. So did they think they were going to get more? This is what I find the most startling—that, apparently, the U.S. thought they knew what they were going to get and they were totally caught flatfooted, it seems.
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, I think it was absolutely surprising because they put out the schedule that included a signing ceremony and, in retrospect, I’m, you know, disappointed that I was surprised because the hallmark of this administration is uncertainty and you really can’t presume that anything is going to happen until it happens.
STARES: OK. Let’s move along.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Owen Churchill with South China Morning Post.
Q: Hi, there. Thanks so much to everyone for doing this. I had a couple of questions.
The first one, to follow up on something that Scott said about possible disconnects between the working-level process and the leader-level process, and specifically what your assessment was of Special Representative Biegun’s absence from the summit—you know, what that said about Trump’s approach, and what it might have—what effect it might have had on how those talks progressed and concluded. And then second of all, to either Scott or to Josh, a question about China. During the presser after the summit, President Trump kind of oscillated between saying that Xi Jinping had been very helpful, and then suggesting that he could have been more helpful. In light of the past couple of days, what kind of help do you see the U.S. requesting from China? And how far would China be willing to go in terms of—in terms of stepping up its involvement? Thanks.
STARES: You want to go first, or?
SNYDER: I’ll take the first one.
STARES: OK, go ahead. Go ahead, Scott.
SNYDER: On the disconnect side, I mean, it is true that some of the meetings structures, you know, might have been better organized to reinforce the importance of the special representative’s role. But at the same time, I think that the North Koreans at least had the experience of accepting and interacting with the special representative. And if we go forward, I think there are ways of reinforcing his role and the importance of making the working-level process work, even despite some of the problems and optics around some of the components of the U.S.-DPRK summit.
KURLANTZICK: On the second question, I don’t—it’s hard to assess what Trump thinks is or isn’t help from Xi Jinping. But, I mean, in terms of Chinese policy, I don’t think you’re going to see that much deviation. The policy has—the cores of the policy have continued, even when there was pressure on—more pressure and less pressure, and the course remained, you know, regional stability, resisting maximum pressure, and some idea of containment of North Korea, and not wanting to destabilize North Korea. So if U.S. policy happened to move in that direction, China would resist that.
On the other hand, it wants the policy that in 2018 looked for more closer rapprochement. China went along with its continued middle of the road approach, and also was seen hosting Kim multiple times to show that it was going to remain a key actor. It was neither going to support, you know, massive maximum pressure or completely get on board with peace diplomacy. But it would seek a middle course, increasing support for North Korea, et cetera. I don’t think there’s any reason to think that they’re going to deviate from that sort of middle of the road approach, as they’ve pursued for quite some time.
STARES: I took the president’s comments to be reference to the belief by some people that China has kind of taken gas—its foot off the gas in terms of sanctions. I mean, it’s not really being so strict as it was six, ten months ago. And this is a sort of subtle reminder to keep the pressure on. That’s how I interpreted it.
Q: Great. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Jackie Borchardt with the Cincinnati.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
STARES: Yes, we can hear you.
Q: All right, great. Sorry. President Trump said that he won’t hold Kim responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, the college student who was imprisoned there for over a year before returning in a coma and dying. And he said he believed that Kim wasn’t aware of Warmbier’s torture while he was in prison. Is that possible, that he didn’t know? And will Trump’s statement have any long-lasting impact?
SNYDER: I’m sure that the case would have come to Kim Jong-un’s attention at some point. It’s really difficult to know exactly when and in what form that would have taken place.
But, you know, the issues around human rights are issues that President Trump started off his administration focusing on. But the disappearance of those issues in his rhetoric following his decision to meet with Kim Jong-un is just so striking, and really it is—it’s unfortunate that the administration has not found a way to be able to continue to pursue a human rights policy toward North Korea in some form at a bureaucratic level, even while trying to pursue high-level diplomacy with North Korea.
STARES: By the way, it’s yet another example or the latest example of President Trump taking the word of a foreign leader rather than what his intelligence agencies have told him. (Laughs.)
Josh, do you have anything to add there?
KURLANTZICK: I mean, I think with the problematic approach generally towards autocrats. Not just because the intelligence agencies said something different but because he’s taking the word of autocrats who—against both his intelligence agencies and against common sense. It’s a problem for the region in that this is a broader issue.
But the White House has proposed a regional strategy known as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which has many strands, but one of which is supposed to be, you know, support for freedom—and they don’t specifically say this, but support for freedom and rights. And he rhetorically undermines that support every time he goes anywhere in Asia and expresses support or condones support for the autocrats.
STARES: OK. Just a reminder, this is on the record. I’m talking to Scott Snyder and Josh Kurlantzick.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.
Q: Thanks very much.
I’m not—I want to say first of all that I think that to the extent that this is a question I think it’s been posed on previous occasions, but I want to try it from a slightly different point of view and one that I’m frank to say I take no pleasure in asking. There was a—there was sort of lots of conversation about this time twenty-four hours ago about the juxtaposition of Michael Cohen testifying before Congress and President Trump being in Hanoi. And I’m thinking about what seems to me to be the most emphatic takeaway from those hearings yesterday, which is that it is difficult if not impossible to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of the president of the United States. And that’s a position we really haven’t been in before. And so the question that comes to my mind, looking at it from that perspective, is: If you were to assess a level of confidence on which of the two people who have spoken about the meetings in Hanoi is more credible, in normal situations you would say it would be the U.S president, not the foreign minister of the DPRK, but in this case I’m not sure we have that luxury. So I am interested to know from both Scott and Josh whether we—whether we have a basis for assessing whether there is an element of truth, no element of truth in what President Trump is describing as the outcome, as opposed to what Mr. Ri has said. And as to points that have been raised before by Trudy Rubin and others, you know, scrubbing that ceremony at the—at the last minute suggests that Donald Trump was convinced that this was going to happen, and in—again, one of the things that we learned yesterday from Michael Cohen is that the president has a way of saying to his people, you know, this is—this is what’s going to happen when we get over there, and that no matter what people tell him, you know, he goes in expecting it, and it doesn’t happen, and he leaves. So I’m just—it’s a rambling question, but what I’m really trying to get at is what’s the basis for thinking that what President Trump has said is really what happened?
STARES: Almost impossible question to answer. Anyway, give it—give it your best shot, guys.
SNYDER: OK. Well, there are some additional documents and testimonies that I think that we’ll want to see before we make a final judgment about what exactly happened in Hanoi. And those testimonies would come from the working-level individuals who have been involved in leading negotiations in advance of the leader-level summit and also the readouts that are likely to come from the North Korean media. Following Singapore, actually, the North Korean readout was more detailed than the U.S. government readout. And so I think that it’s important. And then there will also be additional, I guess, cross-corroboration in the form of how does the story get reported to interested parties and other governments.
KURLANTZICK: I would just add that—
STARES: Oh, go ahead, Josh. Sorry.
KURLANTZICK: I was just going to—I was just going to add to that that although I don’t disagree with some of the things that were said there, that in addition to what Scott said on corroboration from a lower level or working level, you do have, you know, in North Korea a highly authoritarian or totalitarian system where you’re not going to get pushed from the press in that forum about what really happened. And I’m sure we will get an avalanche of stories relying on lower-level officials, intelligence leaks, and others pushing close to making—helping us make a decision about what really happened and who is, you know, more credible in terms of what happened at the Hanoi summit.
STARES: All right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Lee Cullum with Public Media.
Q: Thank you very much. And thank you for a very compelling assessment of our current situation given the last two days.
If there is another president, a new president in 2021, what might that new administration reasonably expect to accomplish in North Korea?
STARES: Yikes. That’s a long way off.
SNYDER: Yeah. That’s an interesting question because—
STARES: Well, maybe not, but. (Laughs.) Scott, do you want to—
SNYDER: Yeah. I think that if we look back historically at the U.S.-North Korea relationship and its ups and downs, one of the things, ironically, that the North Koreans I believe crave in the response of the United States is consistency. You know, they have found themselves in difficulty as a result of the variable nature of U.S. policy over time. And what we’re looking for from the North Koreans, really, in the end is reciprocity because they think of themselves in terms of mindset as kind of a guerilla state, an outlier in the international system. And so what that means is that historically they don’t believe in quid pro quos; they just believe in receiving concessions from the outside. And so, you know, the evidence of change on both sides would actually be for the North Koreans to show reciprocity in the way that they structure interactions with the U.S. And in return, the other big question is whether the United States can show consistency in policy across administrations.
STARES: All right. Anybody else?
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from—
Q: Could I—
OPERATOR: Go ahead.
Q: Never mind. I was going to say, I do have a follow-up if that would work. Consistency across administrations, what elements of the current administration would regionally be picked up to be consistently pursued?
SNYDER: Well, it’s a good question. I mean, it’s possible that the North Koreans may find that consistency is actually not what they would prefer, especially if it’s consistency in insisting that North Korea completely denuclearize, which I think is still not their intent. But at the same time, I think that the nature of their experiences, for instance in the 1990s with the light water reactor, you know, they actually looked for a guarantee from President Clinton. It came in the form of a letter written to Kim Jong-il, that the project would go forward, even after he left office. And so I just see that as evidence of a desire on the, you know, part of the North Koreans to try to nail down a certain level of consistency in U.S. policy across administrations.
Q: Thank you very much.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Carol Hisau (ph) with Wall Street TV (sp).
Q: Hi, this is Carol. Can you guys hear me? Yes, I hope.
STARES: Yes, we can hear you.
Q: So my first question has been kind of briefly answered already, but I’m still wondering. Scott has mentioned a more active role will be taken from China possibly in the future. What exactly do you mean by that? What kind of active role do you think? Would China be trying to facilitate conversation between U.S. and North Korea? And my second question is, with the conversation kind of falling apart, do you think China will be using this as a leverage going forward with the U.S. and China trade talks? Thank you.
SNYDER: Yeah, I actually think that in an environment in which it looks like the U.S. and North Korea may not be in as effective a dialogue, China will be turned to by the administration to try to put a little bit more pressure on North Korea in order to get them back to dialogue. And the environment that we’ve had since Singapore has been one where the Chinese have shown more complacency in their application of pressure in the form of sanctions. So I think that’s what the U.S. will expect. I believe that China on the North Korea issue shares a limited interest in denuclearization but is also concerned about peace and stability.
And so, in a way, just as the Chinese were a big beneficiary for the Singapore—of the announcement by President Trump to suspend exercises, you know, the Chinese could have been a big beneficiary from the pressures that might have been generated from a peace declaration on U.S. presence. And so in a way, I think the Chinese also, you know, would be interested in taking measures that would help to bring that aspect of the U.S.-North Korea agreement to fruition.
And with the trade talks, it’s hard to say. I think that at the leader level that may come into play, in terms of President Trump’s conversations with Xi. But I think that the main lesson that Xi Jinping learned from his initial encounter with Trump, where basically the Chinese took from their first Mar-a-Lago visit that as long as they cooperated on North Korea that Trump would ease off on trade pressure. Well, that didn’t really work out so well from a Chinese perspective, and so I’m not sure that the Chinese are going to be—are going to put faith in any kind of effort to link these two issues going forward.
KURLANTZICK: I would add to that that I think the U.S. position on China trade and China generally has had an enormous shift in the last three years, as the result not only of President Trump but of significant shifting dynamics in both parties on views of China and among U.S. opinion leaders. So I don’t—I don’t think that sort of approach to China generally is going to change that much whatever happens with North Korea. It’s going to remain—it’s shifted. The pendulum has shifted significantly in (policy ?) direction.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Terence Smith with PBS NewsHour.
Q: Hi. I’m just thinking about your points on the desire for consistency from the U.S. and reciprocity from North Korea. Both of those—the conditions for those—would have been set by more advance work, a longer lead time, and I’m wondering if you think this summit really was doomed from the start, from before it began, by the short lead time and the lack of the work that needed to be done to reach what apparently would have been acceptable goals.
SNYDER: Yeah, I think that working-level preparation would have, obviously, made a big difference to having an assurance that an agreement would stick. But then at the same time, you know, there is this issue of, you know, how the leaders interact with their senior representatives. And so there is a kind of, I think, unpredictability that may—so far looks like it may be inherent in the Trump-Kim interaction in the absence of more clear evidence that the working-level processes are integrated well with leadership thinking on these issues.
STARES: I think we have maybe one—time for one more question if we can get one in quickly.
OPERATOR: Thank you. It seems that we have a follow-up question from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.
Q: Guys, I think it’s pretty much been touched on. I was going to—the question I was going to pose is: What do you suppose they’re saying, you know, sitting around the desk with President Xi or Prime Minister Abe today? What’s their view about what just happened in Hanoi?
SNYDER: Abe is probably relieved.
Q: And I’m talking about their view of the U.S.
SNYDER: OK. Well, in terms of perceptions of the U.S., I mean, I’m actually doubtful that this particular event is going to change the baseline assessment.
KURLANTZICK: Yeah. I mean, I would—
STARES: That being—that being what? Just reiterate what you mean by baseline assessment.
SNYDER: The baseline assessment would be that the pattern of—the pattern of transactionalism and diplomacy has already been well established in the Trump administration and some of the other patterns that we see in terms of the diplomatic style under the Trump administration, I think, are also common knowledge at this point. So I think that—so I just don’t see that this particular event is going to change how senior advisors to Xi Jinping or Abe are going to view the United States.
STARES: Josh, last word?
KURLANTZICK: I agree with that. I mean, I think it also further underscores the unpredictability that some of them, particularly Abe, tried valiantly to deal with and have often found themselves, even with their, you know, valiant efforts a little bit—coming up a little bit short of how to deal with it.
STARES: OK. We are out of time, exactly 3:00. This has been a fascinating conversation. We could clearly go on for a lot longer.
I want to thank everybody on the line and also thank my two colleagues, Scott Snyder and Josh Kurlantzick. I do want to remind everybody that the discussion was on the record. And a transcript will be put together and put up on our website along with other materials relevant to the Hanoi summit, so please look out for that. That will be on CFR.org.
So thank you again, and see you next time. Bye bye.
SNYDER: Thanks, everyone.