North Korean official says country seeks partial sanctions relief, contradicting Trump

The president said there is no rush to make a deal, but an equally guarded Kim said he is ready to denuclearize
A screen shows a video of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump as members of the media work in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28, 2019.
A screen shows a video of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump as members of the media work in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28, 2019.

HANOI, Vietnam — President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly cut short their two-day summit Thursday amid contradictory accounts over why they were unable to reach an agreement to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

Talks collapsed unexpectedly amid a disagreement about the trade-off between sanctions relief and denuclearization steps, leaving questions about the next possible moves for each side to keep alive the diplomatic outreach. The two leaders and their delegations left the meeting site in Vietnam’s capital without sitting for a planned lunch or participating in a scheduled signing ceremony.

What came next was different versions of the impasse. 

Trump said the main impediment to a deal was Kim’s requirement that the United States lift all economic sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the closure of one nuclear facility, which still would have left Pyongyang with a large arsenal of missiles and warheads.

“We had some options, but at this time we decided not to do any of the options,” Trump said. He added, “Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times.”

Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, offered a different take. Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief as a framework to move ahead with plans to dismantle the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material.

The foreign minister, in a rare news conference, said the North sought an end to “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people in particular.” 

For Trump, the surprising turn of events amounted to a significant diplomatic setback. The president flew 20 hours to Vietnam with hopes of producing demonstrable progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization, building upon his first summit meeting with Kim last summer in Singapore.

The breakdown sent shivers through financial markets in Asia, with South Korea’s stock market falling sharply just before the close of trading to end down 1.8 percent. The South Korean won also slipped, and Japan’s main Nikkei 225 share index ended down 0.8 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average was down on Wall Street.

At a news conference before he left Vietnam to return to Washington, Trump said he and Kim did not commit to holding a third summit. Still, he said, they parted ways on positive terms.

“This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out,” Trump told reporters. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands. . . . There’s a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will. But we’re positioned to do something very special.”

But North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, was less optimistic.”

The impression I got observing this summit from the side, was that our chairman seems to have difficulty understanding the U.S. way of reckoning,” she said. “I felt that our chairman has lost the will to engage in dealmaking, with the U.S. saying that even a partial lifting of sanctions for the civilian economy is hard.”

Trump said Kim promised he would not conduct missile launches or test nuclear weapons. And he said Kim was willing to close the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, the site of North Korea’s main nuclear reactor and its only source of plutonium to make bombs. But Trump said Kim did not offer to close other, covert facilities to enrich uranium.

Ri Yong Ho later confirmed that the North would be willing to “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site, and would allow U.S. nuclear experts to observe. But he did not mention uranium enrichment facilities at other sites.

Trump zeroed in on sanctions as the key sticking point in the talks.

“It was about the sanctions,” he said. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hopes that negotiators from the two countries will be able to narrow differences in the future, but he did not announce firm plans to continue talking.

“We were certainly closer today than 36 hours ago, and we’re closer than we were a month or two before that. So real progress was made,” he said. “I think everybody hoped we could do this better, but the departure was with an agreement we continue to work on what has been an incredibly difficult problem. Everyone walked away in that spirit.”

But Choe, the vice foreign minister, said the United States was missing a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and said no future meetings between the two sides were planned.

“It is difficult to say whether there might be a better agreement than the one based on our proposal at current stage,” said Foreign Minister Ri. “Our principal stance will remain invariable and our proposal will never be changed even though U.S. proposes negotiation again in the future.”

It was clear that the two sides remain far apart on some key issues, including a fundamental one: What denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would actually mean. It is still not clear what demands Kim would place on U.S. forces in South Korea and in the region for him to be willing to surrender his nuclear arsenal.

“He has a certain vision,” Trump said. “It’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago.”

In the run-up to the talks, the United States had been offering to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, open liaison offices in each other’s capitals, and had been demanding North Korea at least agree to close down its production of fissile material to make bombs. The United States appeared willing to offer some mild sanctions relief in return for such a deal, but insisted the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council had to stay intact until North Korea fully denuclearizes.

But it was clear the North Korea counter-offer still left a large gap between the two sides.

Still, following two days of meetings with Kim at the lavish Metropole hotel in downtown Hanoi, Trump continued to lavish praise on Kim. He called him a great leader and boasted about the warmth of their friendship.

Trump did not address Kim’s record of brutality and human rights atrocities during his Vietnam trip.

Asked by a reporter whether he had discussed with Kim the case of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, Trump said he had.

Warmbier was in a coma through most of his imprisonment and died at age 22, shortly after being sent home to Cincinnati. Kim rules a totalitarian state, and his government has insisted that Warmbier was nothing but a “criminal.”

Yet Trump said Kim denied to him any knowledge of or role in his treatement.

“He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” Trump said. “Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places and bad things happen. But I don’t believe he knew about it.”

Analysts have said Trump’s strategy of engaging Kim was risky, given that U.S. intelligence officials have said the North Korean leader is unlikely to surrender an arsenal that is thought to include 20 to 65 nuclear warheads.

Although Trump has pointed to a moratorium on testing that has been in place since November 2017, U.S. intelligence officials have discovered evidence that the North has sought to conceal its weapons programs despite publicly engaging with the United States and South Korea in denuclearization talks.

Administration officials, led by the State Department, had worked over the past two weeks to try to nail down specific commitments from Pyongyang to advance the process, but progress has been slow, according to U.S. and South Korean officials familiar with the talks. 

Sitting beside Kim on Thursday morning, Trump said the pair had enjoyed very good discussions over dinner the night before, with “a lot of great ideas being thrown about,” adding that “importantly, I think the relationship is, you know, just very strong.”

“And when you have a good relationship, a lot of good things happen. So, I can’t speak necessarily for today, but I can say this that, a little bit longer-term, and over a period of time, I know we’re going to have a fantastic success with respect to Chairman Kim and North Korea.”

Trump repeatedly stressed that there was “no rush” to make a deal. “Chairman Kim and myself, we want to do the right deal. Speed is not important,” he said.

Kim said he was ready to denuclearize, at least in principle. “If I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now,” he said through an interpreter.

Both Kim and Trump also said they would welcome the idea of opening a U.S. liaison office in the North Korean capital. Washington does not have direct diplomatic representation in Pyongyang.

Asked if he was confident that the pair would reach a deal, Kim was equally guarded. 

“It’s too early to tell. I won’t prejudge,” Kim said in reply to the question from a Washington Post reporter, a rare response from a North Korean leader to an independent journalist. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”

On Thursday morning, Trump and Kim arrived in separate motorcades for the second day of summit talks at the hotel. After speaking to reporters seated in front of U.S. and North Korea flags, they strolled briefly through the hotel, pausing to chat briefly with Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, by the pool. 

Trump’s warm greeting of Kim on Wednesday night suggested that the president was hopeful that their personal rapport could help bridge gaps in the negotiations among lower-level aides ahead of the summit.

Trump said the biggest area of progress since Singapore was their “relationship,” and in a tweet after their dinner Wednesday, he said the two had “very good dialogue.” The dinner of grilled sirloin and chocolate lava cake was an attempt to continue to foster trust ahead of meetings Thursday, during which Kim said the whole world was watching them.

“There would be people welcoming, and people viewing our meeting with skepticism,” the North Korean leader said, “but there would also be people who would look at us spending a great time together, like a scene in a fantasy movie.”

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