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What's In Store For Future Negotiations Between The U.S. And North Korea


President Trump is coming home empty-handed from his nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two leaders failed to reach an agreement to reign in Pyongyang's nuclear program. The president says Kim was demanding too much relief from economic sanctions while offering too little in the way of disarmament. The summit's abrupt end puts a spotlight on the president's negotiating tactics, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Trump has always tried to present himself as a master negotiator. But he was unable to close a deal with Kim Jong Un today. As their meeting ended in Vietnam, Trump told reporters sometimes to get a good bargain, you have to be willing to walk away.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was a potential we could have signed something. I could have a hundred percent signed something today. We actually had papers ready to be signed. But it just wasn't appropriate. I want to do it right. I'd much rather do it right than do it fast.

HORSLEY: Trump and his advisers painted this not as a breakdown in negotiations but rather a pause to regroup. Foreign policy analyst Dan Drezner of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy says that's preferable to the kind of superficial nuclear deal some people worried Trump might strike, one with big concessions by the U.S. and limited movement by North Korea.

DAN DREZNER: This is a good outcome in the sense that Donald Trump did not get completely swindled. He went to the poker table, and he left the poker table with some of his chips.

HORSLEY: Robert Gallucci, who was chief negotiator with North Korea in the 1990s, was also relieved that Trump didn't give away the store. He notes the advance team that tried to lay the groundwork for the Trump-Kim meeting was given very little time to iron out differences before the leaders arrived, a high-pressure challenge Gallucci likens to the two-minute drill in football.

ROBERT GALLUCCI: We need something that unfortunately looks like processes we've had in the past. That doesn't mean it has to take four years. But it, you know, may well take more than four weeks.

HORSLEY: Ordinarily presidents hold off calling for a summit until much of this diplomatic spadework is already done. But Trump, who boasts of enormous confidence in his own ability to forge agreements, has twice now announced meetings with Kim Jong Un with little or no preparation. Michael Fuchs, who helped oversee Asia policy in the Obama State Department, calls that a mistake.

MICHAEL FUCHS: The cart before the horse strategy has not worked here.

HORSLEY: Fuchs, who's now at the Center for American Progress, says Trump too often prizes summit pageantry over substance, what he calls a reality TV approach to diplomacy collided with actual reality in Vietnam.

FUCHS: The president too often acts like he just wants a win, so I hope the president will learn this lesson not just on North Korea but when it comes to China as well.

HORSLEY: Trump is already looking towards another summit this coming month with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about trade issues. The aborted North Korea summit could make Trump more cautious about those negotiations, but analysts worry it could also leave the president all the more desperate to make a deal. Trump often complains many of these international challenges festered for years before he came into office.


TRUMP: I get a kick out of so many people from past administrations telling me how to negotiate when they were there in some cases for eight years. They did nothing.

HORSLEY: But the president may finally be discovering that international diplomacy, like health care, is more complicated than he imagined. Drezner says perhaps Trump's so far unsuccessful effort to strike a deal with North Korea will inspire some humility.

DREZNER: Sometimes policy failures happen not because your predecessors were incompetent or failed to think outside the box. Sometimes it's that the box is a really difficult one to get out of.

HORSLEY: Especially when that box is armed with nuclear weapons. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.