Now that the Hanoi nuclear summit talks have ended in failure, the two crucial questions are (1) whether there will be a major escalation of tensions and (2) whether the North Koreans have made a fundamental decision to keep their nuclear program, despite the pressures.

Only Kim Jong-Un can answer the second question.

Pres. Trump himself clearly wants to avoid an escalation. His comments were firm but not harsh, giving Kim a chance to reconsider. He continued to stress the good personal relations between the two leaders, referred to his counterpart by his honorific title, “Chairman Kim,” and avoided diminutive nicknames like “Rocket Man.” That keeps the door open for negotiations, but Trump will not make any more goodwill payments like those that suckered his predecessors. Trump himself has already made one gesture by suspending joint US-South Korean military exercises. One important question now is whether Trump intends to resume those regular exercises.

For Kim, the main question is what it always was: Will he take costly, irreversible steps to begin dismantling his nuclear program? The summit failure shows he has not yet decided to do that, which is different from saying he has definitely decided to keep the weapons and rocket program. We already know North Korea is still building new facilities. We don’t know if the US will call them out on that, either publicly or through leaks.

To prevent an escalation, Kim must avoid any actions to show how “powerful” and independent he is, such as testing a missile. In making these decisions, Kim faces his usual problem: he cannot get good information about the risks and rewards because he is so isolated. Offer the Big Boss advice he doesn’t like and you die, as one of Kim’s aides did simply for falling asleep in a meeting.

If Kim does not escalate, then the US probably won’t tighten current economic sanctions, at least not immediately. It will keep the current ones in place and work closely with allies on their multilateral implementation. China and Russia will continue to undercut them and probably do even more. If Kim does take a provocative act, however, then expect much tighter US sanctions and a very tense situation.

Assuming Kim does nothing provocative, it is uncertain whether if the US will resume the joint military exercises it has suspended. A resumption is likely, but any announcement will probably be postponed to give Kim a chance to reconsider. If the US does resume exercises on the peninsula, North Korea could very well escalate in response. That’s why the choices are so delicate and consequential.

Trump’s decision to walk away has ramifications for all of America’s negotiating partners. It will surely cause a shudder among China’s trade negotiators since it tells them Trump won’t accept a weak deal. For China’s trade negotiators, that means a final signing ceremony is no sure thing. The US, Trump is saying, wants a strong deal and nothing less.

The days of John Kerry are well and truly buried.


Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected]


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