What’s next after the Trump-Kim summit? An expert explains.

The abrupt end to the US-North Korea meeting in Vietnam has made the relationship very uncertain — but progress is still possible.

President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s Vietnam summit didn’t go quite as planned.

On Thursday, both leaders walked away from the high-stakes, two-day meeting without a denuclearization deal. Trump told reporters that it was because North Korea wanted “sanctions lifted in their entirety” — a concession the US wasn’t willing to give.

But North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contradicted Trump’s narrative at a later press conference, insisting North Korea only wanted partial sanctions relief.

The scuttled deal has left a lot of people wondering what actually happened — and where do the US and North Korea go from here?

To answer that, I called David Kim, a former State Department official specializing in East Asia and nonproliferation who’s currently at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, DC. Kim and I spoke before North Korea told its side of the narrative at the press conference, but he said his assessment largely stayed the same — and there’s still plenty we don’t know, and a lot will depend on what the US and North Korea do next.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.


Jen Kirby

Trump and Kim left Hanoi without a deal. What do you think happened?

David Kim

On the US side, it could have been that we asked for too much. On the North Korean side, it could have been that the US wasn’t [willing] to give as much sanction relief as the North Koreans expected.

Jen Kirby

Some have argued no deal is better than a bad deal. Do you think that’s true?

David Kim

I think walking away from a bad deal is ultimately a good thing for Trump and for Kim Jong Un. It might have made Kim think twice about crossing Trump — and if what Trump says is true, that Kim wanted maximum sanction relief, it’s a good thing that Trump walked away.

Jen Kirby

Since this second summit failed, it doesn’t seem like a third one is likely anytime soon. What comes next?

David Kim

Trump is going to face fire back at home from Democrats. He’ll probably get some kind of kudos from Republicans. It will be a mixed message because [Trump] now needs to be accountable to the public, to Congress, because he touted this for weeks. He made this front and center of his foreign policy.

Kim Jong Un was able to get more credibility on the world stage. He doesn’t have a deal, but still he can hedge toward China and play his cards right and still be seen as a rational, credible actor.

But a third summit is not going to be happening anytime soon. We have to allow our negotiators flexibility. I think there is enough political will on both sides, and really political incentives on both sides, to keep this diplomacy going with each other.

Jen Kirby

It’s clear these kinds of high stakes negotiations happening in real-time, in the public eye, with all this pomp and circumstance, has some serious downsides.

David Kim

The pomp and circumstance hasn’t really helped because Trump doesn’t know the gravity of what he does. Everything is really in the details of a negotiation — especially of this sort.

It’s pretty clear it’s not a win for either Trump or Kim. But does it give us enough ammunition to recover and then continue? Or is this going to be a repeat of the six-party talks where it was slow rolling, and ended up being killed at the end?

Jen Kirby

Trump and Kim were apparently writing love letters. Do you think what happened in Vietnam means the possible return of Trump’s old “fire and fury” rhetoric?

David Kim

I’m cautiously optimistic, but wary about a potential next summit because of who Trump is. One thing is clear: he wants a political win from this. This is the only thing that he has going for him in the world, and he’s going to spin this the way he needs to do for a political victory. I see him playing this out for two years, and then as elections come around he can change his tone.

Jen Kirby

What makes you think that?

David Kim

Yesterday, there was a commitment, at least verbally, that [North Korea’s] moratorium on nuclear and missile testing will continue. That is important, it’s meaningful, for many, many reasons.

Trump said he’ll continue to stop joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula, which to North Korea has always been an offensive gesture. In a period of detente, I think it makes sense to stop offensive military exercises that’s really aimed at North Korea but also China.

Jen Kirby

Where do our allies stand in this — specifically South Korea and Japan?

David Kim

I think for South Korea, there’s going to be a lot of shuttle diplomacy that’s not necessarily going to be public. The biggest loser here is [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in. President Moon will be the one who’s going to have to put this deal back together and do some shuttle diplomacy by either working with Kim to get him to Seoul, working on stronger cosmetic inter-Korean agreements — he can’t lift sanctions obviously, so he has to work on cultural cooperation and doing these symbolic gestures.

For Japan, they have a busy year, their emperor is stepping down and they’re getting a new one, they’re preparing for the Olympics and all these things — so I think for Japan, they’re still not in the picture entirely. The one thing I’d add is that the relationship between Japan and South Korea isn’t going very well right now, and the US has to try to bring them back because they are both our strongest allies in the region.

Jen Kirby

What should we be looking out for next from the Trump administration — besides maybe some tweets?

David Kim

This is going to be hard. I think Trump knows that it was a defeat, but he’s going to spin it as he was walking away from a very bad deal and he’s going to get, at least from his base, kudos for that.

But I think the optics of the summit writ large show that Trump wasn’t prepared, and he should not have gone in the first place.

He’s going to get pushback, and what happens now is that he needs to be accountable to Congress, he needs to be accountable to the American public in terms of actually putting a credible path forward. My fear is that he doesn’t have a Plan B, so he’s going to try to see if they can work it out at the negotiating level, and maybe just stick with that plan, or try to improve it a little bit. We’ll see.

Jen Kirby

At a press conference after the summit, North Korea suggested that Kim might have “lost the will” to participate in talks. Is that worrisome?

David Kim

This presser was also for people in his country. He can’t go back to his country and say it wasn’t my fault, it’s Donald Trump. Even if it was Donald Trump’s fault — it’s his way of flexing his muscles, in a way. I have other options. It’s just kind of political grandstanding.

The propaganda machine, that is what it’s there for. It’s to portray success depending on how it benefits the leader. Kim Jong Un didn’t get sanctions relief. He traveled 60 hours to get there, and didn’t have anything to show for it. The least he can do is say, ‘You know what, I don’t know if I’ll go back to this.

Jen Kirby

So just to be sure — no more fire and fury?

David Kim

I would not make many predictions at this point, but, right now, both leaders are committed. When we have that political commitment, it goes a long way.