HANOI, Vietnam — The collapse of President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un left confusion in its wake Thursday, with each side blaming the other and no clear path forward in the nuclear standoff.
As Trump flew home from Hanoi, site of the abbreviated gathering, a growing outcry erupted in the United States over Trump’s defense of Kim in the 2017 death of American college student Otto Warmbier, whose family said he suffered brutal torture while imprisoned in North Korea.
But despite the president returning empty-handed, Trump’s political allies praised what they called his acumen in walking away rather than accepting a bad deal, and some analysts cited early signs that North Korea still wanted to keep open the lines of communication.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the Senate floor to declare that Trump had made the right call.
“High-level diplomacy can carry high-level risks, but the president is to be commended for walking away when it became clear insufficient progress had been made on denuclearization,” McConnell said.
Trump cut short his summit with Kim earlier Thursday, rejecting the North Korean leader’s offer to dismantle a major nuclear complex in exchange for the removal of U.S. economic sanctions.
Trump said that the U.S. wanted more concessions from Kim and that talks would continue. But the president wouldn’t commit to holding a third summit after two high-profile meetings have failed to produce a concrete agreement on rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
“Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump said at a news conference in the Vietnamese capital before departing for Washington on Air Force One. “This was one of those times.”
Less than 12 hours later, a North Korean official took the rare step of holding a news conference to tell reporters: Kim made a “realistic proposal,” and it was the U.S. that was obstinate in its demands.
In a Hanoi hotel lobby after midnight, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said North Korea had proposed dismantling its main nuclear complex and permanently halting all nuclear and long-range missile testing in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions, but the U.S. was “not ready to accept our proposal.”
“Our principal stand will remain invariable and our proposal will never be changed,” he said.
“This proposal was the biggest denuclearization measure we can take at the present stage in relation to the current level of confidence between the DPRK and the United States,” Ri said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
As Trump flew home via Alaska, where he briefly addressed troops during a refueling stop at Elmendorf Air Force Base, even some supporters expressed dismay over Trump’s about-face on Warmbier, the 22-year-old who was held for 17 months by North Korea and died shortly after being returned home in a vegetative state.
At the time, the president decried Pyongyang’s “cruel dictatorship,” and had the student’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, as guests at his 2018 State of the Union address. After the latest summit, though, Trump essentially absolved Kim of responsibility, saying the North Korean leader claimed to be unaware of any mistreatment, and “I will take him at his word.”
The backlash was swift, especially in light of Trump’s past embrace of authoritarians’ claims over those of his own intelligence services. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Warmbier’s home state of Ohio, said Kim should not be let “off the hook” in the death, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, called Trump’s comment “strange,” citing “thugs that the president chooses to believe.”
Even without that burgeoning controversy, the summit’s collapse represented a setback for Trump, who watched his made-for-TV diplomacy eclipsed by the congressional testimony of his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who suggested at a House hearing Wednesday that the president had broken federal laws with payoffs to conceal alleged extramarital affairs.
Asked about Cohen’s testimony at the news conference, Trump said his former confidant “lied a lot.”
“I think having a fake hearing like that and having it in the middle of this very important summit is really a terrible thing,” Trump said.
Trump indicated that Kim was willing to agree to dismantle Yongbyon, a sprawling nuclear complex that includes North Korea’s only plutonium reactor as well as facilities to produce highly enriched uranium.
But in exchange, Trump said, Kim wanted U.S. sanctions “lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.”
Ri said North Korea had only asked for a partial lifting of sanctions — five of 11 currently in place, the harshest penalties imposed after a series of nuclear tests.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo elaborated that shutting down Yongbyon still “leaves missiles, warheads and weapons systems.”
Trump said the U.S. wanted North Korea to give up secret facilities other than Yongbyon, adding: “We know every inch of that country.” Analysts relying on satellite images have said North Korea has at least one other facility to produce uranium.
When it became clear that the two sides were too far apart to reach an agreement, the White House scrapped plans for a working lunch and canceled a scheduled signing ceremony. (It had never been clear what was going to be signed.)
Trump’s motorcade departed the meetings at Hanoi’s Hotel Metropole shortly before 1:30 p.m. local time, more than an hour earlier than planned.
Trump was under pressure before the Vietnam meetings to show progress in his outreach to Kim’s enigmatic dictatorship. Last June’s summit in Singapore yielded only vague promises from Kim to denuclearize, with no definition of what that meant and no road map to reach that goal.
But this week’s meetings, which began with a dinner Wednesday, failed even to produce the mostly symbolic concessions that many observers had expected, such as an agreement to open diplomatic liaison offices — a step toward establishing normal ties — or declaring an end to the Korean War.
The summit did elevate Kim for the second time in nine months, placing him side by side with the U.S. president on the world stage — their faces painted on city walls and screened onto souvenir T-shirts, their country’s flags flying together from lampposts, the imagery of their easy interactions broadcast live around the world.
The sudden breakdown in talks Thursday came just hours after Trump and Kim demonstrated a growing chumminess and expressed optimism about making actual progress.
Asked by a reporter if he felt confident, Kim — who had never before answered questions from a reporter — said, “I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic.”
Later, Kim responded to another question about whether he was willing to denuclearize. “If I was not, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Trump, with reporters and cameras in the room, lauded Kim: “That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard,” he said.
A few hours later, after the summit’s premature conclusion, Trump made it clear that he is no longer demanding Kim’s “complete and verifiable denuclearization.”
“I don’t want to put myself in that position from the standpoint of negotiation,” Trump said at Thursday’s news conference — a remarkable departure from Pompeo’s statement last year that “the complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the only outcome that the United States will accept.”