- - Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Hanoi summit was supposed to have been where, building on the goodwill (and not much else) of their meeting in Singapore eight months earlier, real progress would be made toward eliminating North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and in return, granting sanctions relief. In the event, the Hanoi summit was the ultimate nothingburger.

Appearances can be deceiving, of course. President Trump made a long trip for not very much, Kim Jong-un got a two-day ride home on a North Korean train. The rest of us get to go to sleep tonight knowing we’ll not likely have to look upon what’s left after a nuclear war. No small gift.

That there were widespread expectations of progress toward the larger goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the fault of a president’s naivete. He still doesn’t get it that sunny optimism of a salesman is no substitute for a cold eye in measuring an implacable foe. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang might have been nice, like an official end of the Korean War. Indeed, a joint signing ceremony was even on the official summit schedule. The president himself had boosted expectations, predicting that the United States and North Korea “would ultimately have a deal.” And no doubt they will, but “ultimately” can be a long time coming.

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In a press conference after the ball was over, an uncharacteristically muted President Trump (perhaps it was jet lag, perhaps disappointment, perhaps both) said the sticking point was sanctions. The United States, the United Nations and numerous countries continue to maintain a strict sanctions regime on Pyongyang, deeply limiting its ability to import and export goods and access the global financial system. Mr. Kim, the president said, demanded a withdrawal of all of these sanctions at once, not piecemeal, and the Mr. Trump rightly said a total reversal of the sanctions was a non-starter. He rightly decided to walk. Part of his art of the deal is knowing when to leave the table.

This is hardly the end of the Trump-Kim “bromance,” such as it ever was, and the president’s walk may be only a tactical move. The president continued to praise Mr. Kim in his usual florid terms, even after the breakdown of the summit. He even defended Mr. Kim’s role in the gruesome Otto Warmbier affair, saying that he believes Mr. Kim knew nothing of the torture and death of the young college student for the crime of taking a propaganda poster as a souvenir. He spoke again of the great economic reward for North Korea in a genuine deal.

He can approach further negotiations from a position of renewed strength. The United States continues to hold the whip hand. Mr. Kim is isolated, and tough sanctions continue to undermine his ability to deliver food and consumer goods to his impoverished and abused people. The Kim regime has nuclear weapons, but it knows it would lose a war with the Americans. Mr. Kim’s plaintive demand for all sanctions to be lifted at once may be an indication of how desperate he is.

There were widespread fears before the summit that President Trump, desperate for a “win” and facing a political firestorm at home, would give away the store in Hanoi. That didn’t happen. Neither did the firestorm, though Nancy Pelosi and her gang tried, deliberately scheduling the Cohen hearing at the same time as the Hanoi summit so as to cast a shadow over whatever good news might come from Hanoi. Perhaps on the long flight home the president had the opportunity to read again his book, “The Art of the Deal.” By walking away from unreasonable demands, he’s certainly practicing the art.

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