Why Trump was right to walk away from Kim talks

Why Trump was right to walk away from Kim talks

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump talk in the garden of the Metropole hotel during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi. (Reuters)

Before it was scheduled to end, President Donald Trump last week walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in Vietnam. He realized he was not getting the deal he sought, and he decided that no agreement was better than a bad agreement. Trump was immediately criticized by his political opponents in the US, but it may have been the most impressive act of his presidency yet.

Everyone who has been involved in negotiations or read Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” knows that one must be willing to walk away from negotiations at any time. Only someone who is willing to walk away will get what he wants. The person desperate to come away with something — who is unwilling to walk away — will instead be willing to settle for less than they need.

Last week, the North Koreans may have noticed that Trump was facing political pressure at home thanks to politicized hearings in Congress. The North Koreans may have reasoned that this gave them an opening to pressure Trump into an agreement unfavorable to the US. If so, they were wrong.

Pyongyang may have reasoned that, as an elected president with a demanding constituency and an often antagonistic press, Trump was susceptible to pressure. Kim, on the other hand, controls all of the news and perception in his country. His people have no opportunity or freedom to voice any opinions. He faces no dissent, but Trump would face — and has faced — criticism for returning from Vietnam without any concrete advancement. The North Koreans may have thought this would be enough to convince Trump to settle for something unreasonable. This would have been wrong as well.

Or perhaps the North Koreans believed they could pressure Trump into a bad agreement, because they know that other recent US presidents settled on bad agreements when they were unwilling to walk away. Most noticeably, Bill Clinton made unwise agreements with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in the 1990s, and Barack Obama was so eager to sign any agreement with Iran that he gave away almost everything Tehran wanted during the nuclear deal negotiations. However, Trump is not like his predecessors. He is an experienced negotiator and deal-maker, having five decades of experience in business and real estate before taking office.

Trump has often criticized the Obama administration’s negotiating style vis-a-vis
Iran. On the campaign trail as far back as 2015, he described the nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever” and vowed to never make the same mistake of allowing eagerness to overcome prudence. Trump made it clear to the voters that a negotiator must be willing to walk away, always. Apparently, the North Koreans were not listening to Trump’s words. If they had, they would have anticipated that he would willingly leave if they were not willing to compromise.

Pyongyang may have reasoned that, as an elected president with a demanding constituency and an often antagonistic press, Trump was susceptible to pressure.

Ellen R. Wald

Crucially, this does not mean that all discussions between the US and North Korea are over. On the contrary, Trump said the two countries will continue talking. He also said that Kim told him in Vietnam that North Korea would refrain from testing more missiles and rockets and would refrain from detonating any nuclear weapons. If North Korea remains true to this, that concession alone will be a huge victory for the world. 

One difficult choice that Trump may have erred on last week was how he chose to address the issue of Otto Warmbier. Warmbier was an American university student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp by North Korea in 2016 after accusations that he stole a propaganda poster. Trump’s delegates were able to secure his release in 2017, but the US found out he was in a vegetative state from undisclosed injuries suffered while in custody. He died six days after he was returned to the US. 

While in Vietnam, Trump answered a question about the abuse of Warmbier, saying that Kim “tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.” Trump also said that Kim “felt badly about it. He felt very badly.” Most likely, Trump was merely trying to maintain good relations with Kim. After all, he has regularly spoken harshly of North Korea and its human rights abuses against Warmbier and others. 

Nevertheless, Warmbier’s parents, who had often praised Trump for his help, understandably issued a dejected response. The truth is that Trump and his administration have an exemplary record of negotiating the release of Americans held (and often tortured) in foreign prisons for political reasons. They have saved Americans in Venezuela, Turkey, North Korea and Egypt. Yet, Trump learned last week that an American president must do more than protect Americans and their rights. He learned that he must also speak up for those Americans, wherever they are.

The US and North Korea may still reach agreements on peace and even the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Now North Korea knows Trump’s and America’s fortitude, which will help both sides in the next meeting. And other countries also know now that Trump will not settle for a bad deal.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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