Until July 2018, Thornton was Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and led East Asia policy making amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment. In previous State Department roles, she worked on China and Korea policy, including stabilizing relations with Taiwan, the US-China Cyber Agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and the Agreed Framework on North Korean denuclearization. In overseas postings in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and China, Thornton’s leadership furthered U.S. interests and influence in a host of difficult operating environments.
Thornton received her MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and her BA from Bowdoin College in Economics and Russian. Apart from her foreign policy work, she devotes her spare time to community, education, fresh food and connecting with nature on her family farm in Lisbon, Maine.
Reyna Wang CMC'19 interviewed Susan Thornton on March 3, 2019.
What were the major deal breakers responsible for the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi on February 28?
The U.S. and North Korea haven't gotten traction on the substantive part of the negotiation yet. This is all still at the pre-negotiation stage. What happened is that the working-level teams were trying to hammer out a deal that the two leaders could sign, but the two leaders were pretty far removed from that process. One of the problems with North Korea is that you never know what the communication is like between the negotiating team and the top leader Kim Jong-un. He was not sufficiently aware of the U.S. positions, even though I'm sure his negotiating team was telling him what the U.S. saying. When he heard it directly from us, it was probably not something that welcomed. A mismatched expectation is the best explanation.
Do you think that is also why the U.S. and North Korea gave contradictory accounts after the meeting?
Absolutely. The two accounts are both correct from each of their perspectives. Donald Trump says that they wanted us to lift all sanctions, but they weren’t going to give up all of their nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un says that he offered to give up Yongbyon in exchange for the partial lifting of sanctions. Neither side is wrong from its own perspective.
While researching the negotiations between the Kim regime and the past U.S. administrations, I notice two arguments: North Korea only comes to the negotiating table when the pain inflicted by sanctions on its economy is unbearable or when its nuclear program needs more time. Some scholars even argue that Kim Jong-un has no intention to denuclearize. What do you think about these arguments?
I basically agree with most of the scholars but for a different reason. Kim Jong-un has a different definition of denuclearization in mind. We've never achieved a common understanding on what denuclearization means from each of our perspectives. Our side has said that the North Koreans do understand that denuclearization is going to involve inspections, the shutdown of facilities, and a declaration of existing facilities. But we haven't gotten beyond that yet. The real problem is that the two sides haven't had any time to talk about the specifics. So far, the only discussion that has happened is the preparation for the two summits, and then maybe five or six face-to-face meetings between Steve Biegun and his North Korean counterpart, who may or may not have the power to do anything. Although it is going to be very hard to make progress in this negotiation, it is good to have the North Korean leader involved in it. In the past, one of our major problems has been to get information to him without the filter of his teams. The fact that Trump meets Kim allows for a different dynamic in this negotiation and hopefully will be helpful.
How will the outcome of the failed Hanoi summit affect the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula? What are the likely developments in the near future?
This is a tough question that has real ramifications. Part of the answer depends on how surprised the North Koreans were that this summit didn’t work out for them. And my guess is that they were pretty surprised. Kim will go and meet with Xi Jinping in Beijing, and presumably, Xi will tell him that he shouldn’t give up, the Americans are difficult to deal with, and the Chinese will do what they can to smooth the path for negotiations. I suspect Kim has lost face within his own political system, since he went to Hanoi and came back with nothing meaningful on economic relief for North Korea.
It will be a while before we see the North Koreans coming back to the table. They may engage in some mischief in the meantime too. We may see some testing. Normally the North Koreans like to remind everybody that they can cause trouble when they are unhappy. We should watch for that, and we should also watch for how long it will take for them to come back to the negotiating table.
Do you think the communication channel will stay open between the two countries?
There is likely to be another round of discussions. Secretary Pompeo said he hopes the discussions will be held within a few weeks, but I would say that is overly optimistic. We'll probably need a few months. Another thing to watch is that Kim is supposed to have a meeting with Moon Jae in. He was supposed to go to Seoul, but South Korea wanted to wait until after the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. One of the questions now is what will happen with the North-South meeting, which will be another indication of what the North Korean reaction to all this has been and what kind of strategies they are going to pull together to come out of it. I don’t expect that to happen soon. When things like this happen, the North Koreans tend to go back to their show for a while. We will probably see them retreat, cause a bit of mischief, and get people talking about them again. Then we’ll see what happens in reaction to that and maybe down the road they will come back to the negotiating table.
Do you think Kim Jong-un has a new game plan or he is going to adjust his strategy reactively?
The North Koreans are not used to doing these adjustments, but they are also not used to negotiating, because nobody has really negotiated with them since Kim Jong-un came to power. Negotiation is basically a process of educating each side. We haven’t had any chance to educate them on what we think, what our goals are, and what our intentions are. They also have not been talking to us recently. He is learning things and as he receives information to reassess what’s possible in this negotiation, he is adjusting. He is going to have to do that in a negotiation. He might not go to South Korea, but he might end up going to Moscow, in order to show that he still has partners and a diverse audience. Given the history of the negotiations he has to believe that this is going to be a process.
As shown by the outcome of the meeting, the U.S. would not lift sanctions. Do you think it would be possible for the U.S. to make some concessions through other channels, for example, through South Korea, to incentivize North Korea’s initial steps of denuclearization?
My understanding is that Kim did reaffirm the continued freeze on testing. In order to have this calm atmosphere for negotiations, the U.S. said that it would also freeze its major exercises with South Korea, which the North Koreans say they find provocative. That sort of tit-for-tat was holding and reaffirmed at this summit. The freeze on the military exercises, is therefore, not a concession for anything that the North Koreans will do on denuclearization.
There are two other possibilities. The first is a phased approach toward the negotiation: some denuclearization for some concession from the U.S. But it seems like what Trump and Kim talked about in their meeting was the second possibility—a whole package deal. I assume that this was because they could not get an agreement on a package of smaller measures, which might include closure inspections and maybe even dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, in exchange for some symbolic measures like ending the Korean war, opening a liaison office for the U.S. in North Korea, or waivers for some sanctions so that the South Koreans can pursue an economic project. This small package deal didn’t work out either because it did not come through or because one side felt like it wasn't as expected. It strikes me that a half step denuclearization was what the two leaders were trying to achieve through this summit, so they could have something to show for what they’ve done so far. But the North Koreans were not willing to take that meaningful step on denuclearization without something much bigger on sanctions relief.
How will the outcome of this meeting affect U.S. relationships with its Asian allies, more specifically, South Korea and Japan?
South Korea is bound to be disappointed by this result and will probably try to figure out how to salvage something. Many Korean journalists have been asking if it is possible for Moon to again play the mediator role to get the negotiation back on track. I’m sure this is what Moon will be trying to do, because what he was hoping for was that this summit would go well. He hoped there would be some progress on denuclearization, which he could then piggyback on to continue warming the North-South ties and start some of the economic projects agreed upon at the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018. Though South Korea is disappointed, it will not give up hope and will still try to figure out what they can do next. Japan, on the other hand, is pleased because they were worried that the U.S. was going to take a bad deal. The freeze of testing still holds, and they can wait and see what the North Koreans will do next. The Chinese are also okay, as long as the diplomatic process continues.
Does China benefit in any way from the failed summit in Hanoi?
Yes. They will probably get closer to North Korea, which has been a source of discomfort for them. They've been worried that North Korea and the U.S. would immediately become best friends and leave China in the dust. China might feel that its influence is on the rise. Moreover, the Chinese still have flexibility over what they let in and out of the border. In other words, China still has a lot of room that they can use to sweeten the pot for Kim, while keeping the sanctions in force, in order to have more influence on the eventual course of the negotiation. Trump said that the Chinese have been helpful because 93% of the trade goods across the North Korean border are from China. Could they be more helpful? Probably yes. They are not going to be more helpful right now. At this moment, they will probably look the other way while sending more goods across the border to North Korea.
The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain]