by Nicholas Mele

As pundits and politicians try to parse what happened to derail the second meeting between President Trump and Premier Kim Jong Un, it might be helpful to consider some of the context:

There never has been much chance of a major breakthrough on the North Korean nuclear weapons issue without long-term working level talks, which have often started but rarely lasted long enough to make a difference. Each new U.S. administration seems to begin at the same starting line as its predecessors. Summits like the two held in Singapore and Hanoi normally involve careful preparation before the leaders meet to approve ready-to-sign agreements. That did not happen either time, although the State Department did have contact with North Korea in the form of Secretary Pompeo’s visits to Pyongyang and the negotiations which U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Biegun undertook in the run up to the Hanoi meeting. Although it is disappointing that no agreements were reached, it is not surprising.

At times, previous rounds of talks with North Korea have included other players, like South Korea, Japan, and China. The North Koreans themselves once suggested six-party talks involving those nations plus Russia. If the Trump Administration wants a breakthrough, it could do worse than agree to negotiations among the two Koreas, the U.S., China, and Russia. The North Korean account of why the talks broke down seems the more accurate one, and that is a shame because it is clear there was and remains a way forward for negotiations. The President’s insistence on an all-or-nothing deal ignored the long standing North Korean need for assurances the U.S. will respect its status as a sovereign nation, which means the U.S. could have offered several steps such as establishing diplomatic relations, opening negotiations aimed at replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, and offering some sanctions relief to the people of North Korea.

Meanwhile, President Trump neither advanced nor undermined the North-South Korean dialogue that proceeds apace and has produced the first steps toward confidence building measures. In addition, the moves in the U.S. Congress calling for a peace treaty support the wishes of many South Koreans and offer South Korea’s leaders hope for further progress. If the Trump Administration wants a breakthrough, it could do worse than agree to a peace treaty negotiation among the two Koreas, the U.S., China, and Russia.

There are/were other factors at play;  domestically, President Trump’s authority and credibility were shaken by Michael Cohen’s public testimony to Congress and indicators that some of his policies are hurting the U.S. economy. Internationally, India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed countries, escalated their long simmering conflict as the President and the North Korean leader began the Hanoi meeting. The domestic situation may have helped prompt Mr. Trump to cut short the talks and head home. The urgency of rising conflict between India and Pakistan might have put the North Korean nuclear program lower down on the Administration’s priority list.

In the end, the one sure thing is that no breakthrough agreement has occurred but the two sides wish to continue talking despite their differing explanations of why the talks broke down this time. Perhaps it is time to favor working level negotiations over summitry and to start working multilaterally to hold more general disarmament talks as well as those with the aim of removing all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.