News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Reactions to Collapse of Trump-Kim Summit 2019

Feb. 28, 2019

Following the breakdown of  the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi, Belfer Center Korea experts Matthew Bunn, Nicholas Burns, Martin Malin, Joseph Nye, Gary Samore, Wendy Sherman, and Jon Wolfsthal react to the collapse of the talks and suggest steps the United States should take now.

Matthew Bunn – Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom; Professor of Practice

 “After the no-deal Hanoi Summit, both sides have to get realistic. North Korea is not likely to give up all its nuclear weapons any time soon.  But it might very well be willing to reduce nuclear dangers step-by-step in return for parallel steps to lift sanctions, improve relations, and provide benefits.  In the past, step-by-step engagement has resulted in better North Korean behavior than isolation and confrontation have been able to produce.”

Nicholas Burns – Faculty Chair, Future of Diplomacy Project; Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations

“President Trump was right to walk away from Hanoi with no deal.  Kim Jung Un’s demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions on North Korea is unacceptable.  He hasn’t dismantled any part of his nuclear apparatus and has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons. Trump should end the buddy diplomacy with Kim and empower his first-rate negotiator Steve Biegun. They should refashion the coalition against Kim with South Korea, Japan and China, return to sanctions pressure and renew military exercises with South Korea.  This will be difficult—Kim is stronger and less isolated due to Trump’s unwise fawning over a dictator.”

Martin Malin – Executive Director, Project on Managing the Atom

“We don’t know yet whether, in retrospect, the failure to sign an agreement at the Hanoi summit represents a speed bump in the negotiating process or a dead end. North Korea announced in the aftermath it is willing to accept only partial sanctions relief in return for its next steps toward denuclearization. This suggests there is still space for negotiating. The question is whether the working level diplomats will be empowered to meet and move the process forward. The focus should not be on who is to blame but rather on what is still achievable: a continuing de-escalation of tension, and an expanding bilateral diplomatic process, without summitry, aimed at peace, denuclearization, and economic development on the Korean peninsula.”

Joseph S. Nye – Member of the Board, Belfer Center; Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

“Give credit where credit is due. Trump was played by Kim at their first meeting in Singapore, but avoided that fate in Hanoi. Now negotiations should continue at lower levels and properly prepare the ground.”

Gary Samore – Senior Fellow, Belfer Center Korea Project; Associate, Project on Managing the Atom

“The failure of the Hanoi Summit may be a blessing in disguise. For both President Trump and Chairman Kim, it is a teachable moment that personal chemistry cannot substitute for preparation in dealing with the complex and difficult issues of denuclearization.  President Trump has made clear he is willing to extend the freeze on U.S.-ROK military exercises and authorize his diplomats and experts to negotiate the details of a denuclearization deal that he and Kim can announce at their third summit. Hopefully, Kim will be willing to extend his freeze on nuclear and missile testing and accept the U.S. offer to begin serious negotiations. I believe he will.”

Wendy Sherman – Senior Fellow, Belfer Center; Director, Center for Public Leadership

“The Summit failed. It’s really unfathomable that any president would announce the signing of an agreement that clearly hasn’t yet been agreed. If Trump reported accurately, he was right to not have agreed to full sanctions lifting first with only partial dismantlement later. However, if the meeting had been well prepared, it’s likely the president wouldn’t have found himself in the position of a dramatic flameout. Not alerting South Korea and Japan is also a serious problem which doesn’t portend well for future negotiations. Real leadership requires a serious, disciplined negotiation involving the full diplomatic force of the U.S. and our allies, an approach necessary to even imagine getting back on a pathway. On a very human level, the president’s acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s professed ignorance of Otto Warmbier’s condition, like Trump’s acceptance of Putin and Mohammed bin Salman’s denial of responsibility for cruel deaths, grants impunity to authoritarian leaders and undermines American moral authority.”

William Tobey - Senior Fellow, Belfer Center Project on Managing the Atom

"In some ways, this was a better outcome than the Singapore Summit.  President Trump reversed the North’s perception that it is better to deal with him because he offers unilateral concessions, e.g. the cessation of U.S.-ROK military exercises, and because they can then avoid discussion of thorny verification details.  The 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was seen in its immediate aftermath as a failure, but it led directly to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which advanced international security for 30 years.  If the Trump Administration bears down with similar solid diplomacy and staff work, the Hanoi Summit need not be a significant setback."


Jon Wolfsthal – Associate, Project on Managing the Atom

“Trump had a chance to make real progress but pushed at the last minute by NSA John Bolton to push for more, failed to deliver even modest progress to address the North Korean threat. The only recourse, having undermined the pressure campaign is to push both US and DPRK negotiators back to the table to hammer out a deal that both sides can accept. Progress takes time. We need to start using it wisely.”


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Reactions to Collapse of Trump-Kim Summit 2019.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 28, 2019.