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Opinion In the U.S.-North Korea summit’s ashes, nothing – and everything – changes

James Trottier is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former career Canadian diplomat who directed the political/economic programs at the Canadian embassies in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. He was accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations to North Korea in 2015 and 2016.

If last June’s Singapore Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was the symbolic summit – high on symbolism, low on substance – the one in Hanoi this week between the leaders of the United States and North Korea was the drama summit: high on spectacle, but absolutely empty on substance.

The high drama came at high noon on Feb. 28, when the working lunch between the two leaders was abruptly cancelled and Mr. Trump’s news conference was moved up two hours. Shortly after that, the motorcades of the two leaders left the summit venue and the White House announced that there would be no signing of an agreement, as originally scheduled, a surprising end to a summit that had held so much hope hours before.

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There had been, after all, much-hyped chemistry to that point between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump. The U.S. President had described the discussions as “very, very productive” and relations as better than they have ever been. The North Korean leader had remarked that his presence at the summit demonstrated a readiness to denuclearize.

And yet in the end, the already limited expectations for the summit were not met. Even the low-hanging fruit, like exchanging liaison offices in the countries’ respective capitals – let alone concrete steps toward denuclearization, dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex, easing of sanctions and a peace declaration – remained out of reach.

The best that Mr. Trump could claim from the summit was that he did not give away the shop, and that Mr. Kim had said he would not restart his nuclear and missile tests. Mr. Kim, meanwhile, got a boost to his status and legitimacy from yet another summit with an American president, as well as a quote from Mr. Trump that he would not restart the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, even if that was a decision mainly spurred by cost.

At his pre-departure news conference in Hanoi, Mr. Trump opened with some non-sequiturs about the India-Pakistan conflict and the Venezuela crisis, before finally saying that the United States was not prepared to sign the draft agreement. He did not explain what was in said agreement, nor whether one or the other party tried to change it at the last minute.

Mr. Trump said that Mr. Kim had offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, but wanted the lifting of all sanctions in return, which the President wasn’t prepared to do unless North Korea offered more, like the closure of a second uranium-enrichment facility.

Left unsaid was whether any consideration was given to the partial lifting of sanctions in return for dismantling Yongbyon, or whether dismantling of that second uranium facility in and of itself would have been sufficient to lift sanctions. If this was even considered, it would represent a paradigm shift of U.S. policy from complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), which has been its cornerstone plank since 2004. When asked directly about CVID, the President declined to reaffirm it as policy. And when Mr. Trump was asked whether he is insisting that North Korea completely denuclearize before the lifting of sanctions, he again did not respond.

In a rare press briefing of its own, the North Korean government contradicted Mr. Trump, saying that North Korea had requested partial, not full easing of sanctions in return for dismantling the Yongbyon complex. Of course, Mr. Kim may also have had doubts about striking a deal with a U.S. president under political siege at home. Still, the impasse over denuclearization and according sanctions relief seems likely to have been the breaking point.

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So where do things go from here? Mr. Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the two sides would continue to negotiate at the officials level. But before they can get very far, they need to address the basic issue of how to define denuclearization, or officials won’t be able to understand the limits of what each side is prepared to do.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government, which had much riding on this summit, said that it did “regret” that an agreement wasn’t reached. But it publicly sounded an optimistic note all the same: “We believe that … the two heads of state both widened and deepened their understanding of what the other side wanted.”

There is clearly much more widening and deepening to do before Mr. Trump’s brand of personal top-down diplomacy has a chance of success. Superior pre-summit diplomatic preparation will be needed to hammer out a deal – because personal chemistry doesn’t count for everything in the art of a deal.

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