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John Bolton on the Summits 2: Hanoi

By Stephan Haggard

Whatever we think of John Bolton’s motives or policy approach, The Room Where It Happened adds detail to our understanding of the Singapore (Ch. 4) and Hanoi (Ch. 11) summits. In a previous post, I discussed the Singapore summit (and linked to a review of Bolton’s Surrender is Not an Option). Today, a look at the Hanoi summit.

As with the Singapore summit, Bolton was implacably opposed to a second meeting; he thus portrays his primary role as one of damage control. Yet the source of his concern now included not only Trump but Stephen Biegun, who is mentioned over a dozen times in the Hanoi chapter and even Pompeo comes in for rough treatment at several points. As Bolton was on his way to Hanoi, Biegun had produced a draft U.S-.North Korea statement that the National Security Advisor read as pure capitulation. Bolton does not share the details of the draft, but the memoir notes in passing a number of sources of concern: that the U.S. negotiating team had bought into an incremental “action for action” approach; that serious negotiations would require a baseline declaration of the nuclear program; and that Biegun was making concessions rather than laying out American objectives. As always throughout The Room Where It Happened, Bolton raises an additional concern about process: that Pompeo was giving Biegun too much latitude and that whatever Biegun was proposing was not worked through the interagency process, i.e. through him.

Bolton portrays the president as completely absorbed with the Michael Cohen testimony unfolding in Washington after he arrived in Hanoi, cancelling preparatory briefings the day of the summit as a result. But the President had gotten comfortable with the repeated suggestion that walking away from the summit would involve less of a political cost than accepting a deal that lacked substance.

The book confirms in broad strokes the deal that Kim Jong-un had brought to the table: “that the North give up its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, in exchange for lifting of all post-2016 UN Security Council sanctions (p. 325).” What Bolton does not detail—but we know from Biegun’s subsequent comments on the summit—are two crucial facts about this offer. First, the post-2016 UNSC resolutions were precisely those four—UNSC 2321, 2371, 2375 and 2379—in which China had finally agreed to get tough on its client by going after commercial exports and placing a cap on the import of petroleum products. North Korea was thus not asking not for “total” sanctions relief, as Trump later argued. But that claim was not too far from the mark and certainly more accurate than Ri Yong-ho’s explanation for the breakdown, in which North Korea was simply seeking to minimize the humanitarian damage from the sanctions. It is clear from Bolton’s book that Kim Jong-un strongly believed that he could score a big hit against the multilateral sanctions regime, which would have largely unraveled if the North Korean offer was accepted.

And second, the memoir does not make clear that the Yongbyon offer itself was squishy. Contrary to the language just cited, it does not appear that North Korea had the intention of “giving up Yongbyon,” but something more akin to a freeze, inspections and then drawn out process to shut down certain facilities at Yongbyon, including the reprocessing and enrichment facilities. This could have been the foundation for a structured process to get at least something from the North Koreans, but the offer as communicated was pretty thin gruel. It was not based on a fuller statement, did not address the hundreds of other structures in Yongbyon, did not propose any detailed means for monitoring the agreement, nor mention other sites and the stocks of fissile material or weapons. Nor did the North Korean delegation appear to include anyone with the expertise—and authority—to negotiate or even brief on these issues.

Perhaps the two most interesting facts to emerge from the Bolton memoir about Hanoi was how upset Kim Jong-un was that his proposal had failed and the fact that he did not appear to have the inclination—or latitude—to sweeten the deal that he had come in with. This second point, in particular, has been missed. The assumption behind the Trump-style summits was that the two leaders could unlock deals that were blocked in process and by vested interests. What does it say that Kim Jong-un could not even modify this proposal at the margin when pressed (p.328)?

The memoir details the messy end of the second and last meeting of the day, during which Kim Jong-un tried one last time to get a joint statement that would put a rosy gloss on the failure. Against Bolton’s advice, Trump conceded to allow Kim Yong-chol and Pompeo to work on a joint statement, but negotiations on it quickly broke down and no statement was forthcoming.

By now, the freeze that followed Hanoi is well known. Choe Son-hui was assigned the task of targeting Pompeo and Bolton as the villains of the Hanoi drama. On the home front, Bolton continued to fight rear-guard actions against Trump’s efforts to limit the use of secondary sanctions against China (pp. 336-338). A subsequent visit by President Moon to Washington in April anticipated the events of 2020: the summit had also taken a toll on North-South relations. Bolton also shows that Moon Jae-in was still angling for a third summit on the grounds of a striking admission: that lower-level negotiators had no authority to make any concessions. If true, what is the point in even staging working-level talks?

It is a testimony to the challenges of the Trump presidency that Bolton devotes more than 15 pages (pp. 338-355) to the events leading up to the “handshake” meeting at the DMZ in June 2019, a PR event Bolton made the decision to skip. As he summarizes, “I understood what conclusions might be drawn from my not being at the DMZ, but I was past caring at that point.” Needless to say, the meeting had no substantive significance beyond opening more rifts in the American policy process over what steps might be appropriate.

Despite the fact that working-level meetings were going nowhere, on August 1 President Trump fired off three tweets downplaying the North’s short-run missile tests. The last said “Chairman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump.” In a conclusion that sums up Bolton’s view of the Trump presidency, he appends his parting shot: “That was our North Korea policy.”

Could Hanoi have gone differently? It is doubtful unless the Trump administration insisted that the summit would be canceled in the absence of some deliverables negotiated in advance. As the drama actually played out, it is clear from Bolton’s memoir that both the United States and North Korea overreached. Trump exaggerated his ability to close a deal and thus banked too much on a summit with no negotiated deliverables, and on either side. Kim Jong-un exaggerated his ability to roll the presidency, and came in with no Plan B.

If the offer was serious, and some interim agreement had been negotiated in advance of the summit, then a leaders meeting could at least set a more serious framework and timetable in motion. But from reading Bolton, we are reminded that while Biegun’s wings may have been clipped, the North Koreans had little interest in pursuing serious working-level talks either; Bolton is right that the Biegun approach was clearly more forthcoming. The Yongbyon focus pursued during the endgame of the Six Party Talks still remains the most plausible path forward, but everyone watching North Korea knows that the prospects for an agreement are slim. With the election looming, the test of the proposition that such a focus might yield results will have to await a second Trump or Biden administration.

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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