Donald Trump abruptly cut short his second summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Vietnam Thursday, announcing no deal had been signed.
“Sometimes you have to walk,” the president told reporters in Hanoi. “This was just one of those times.”
The talks failed due to Kim’s demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions against Pyongyang, Trump said.
Speaking at an impromptu press conference before boarding Air Force One, Trump explained why there was no joint statement.
“It was about the sanctions basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” he said. “There is a gap. We have to have sanctions. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted but we couldn’t give up all the sanctions for that.”
The premature end to the summit exposes the differences in Washington and Pyongyang over what denuclearization really means.
Kim was willing to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility — something he flagged months ago — but in return the despot demanded an end to the economic sanctions that are crippling his country.
“We asked him to do more and he was unprepared to do that,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during the press conference. “Everyone had hoped we could do just a little bit better.”
It remains unclear exactly what the U.S. demanded of Kim, but Trump tried to paint a positive note by saying the sides are closer now that they were in Singapore in June.
“He has a certain vision and it's not exactly our vision, but it's a lot closer than it was a year ago and I think eventually we'll get there,” Trump said, adding that Kim told him North Korea will maintain a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missiles.
“I trust him. I take him at his word,” Trump said, adding that the U.S. would continue to suspend military exercises with South Korea.
Despite the failure, Trump continued to play up his close relationship with Kim, saying the summit ended amicably.
“It was a very friendly walk,” Trump said.
Plates of foie gras and snow fish were left uneaten as the two leaders departed the Hotel Metropole before a planned bilateral lunch and the expected signing of a joint statement.
“It seems both sides still wanted more than what the other was willing to accept,” Jenny Town, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, told VICE News. “Taking more time to negotiate is not a bad development, but walking away from the summit with nothing is likely to have a deflating effect on the process as a whole.”
But experts are broadly in agreement that Trump was right not to give in to Kim’s sanctions demand.
“The negotiator-in-chief has spoken. If the problem is how he described it — lifting all sanctions for Yongbyon — I wouldn’t have done the deal either,” Joel Wit, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, said in a tweet.
“Complete sanctions relief is entirely unwarranted at this time, so President Trump was right to reject that request,” Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told VICE News.
Moving the denuclearization process forward will now fall to U.S. diplomats, including Stephen Beigun, Trump’s special representative for North Korea. However, where the process goes from here is unclear.
“It appears that Trump and Kim still don't even have a basic roadmap on the sequence of steps needed to move us closer toward the long-term goal of denuclearization and peace, and there is no clarity about follow up meetings by foreign ministers or envoys — that in and of itself is diplomatic malpractice,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan think tank, told VICE News.
However, by walking away without giving any major concessions and getting nothing in return, Trump has likely given Beigun and his colleague's key leverage in those talks.
“Pyongyang is desperate for sanctions relief, so the U.S. has the upper hand in the negotiation process [and] it can press for more concessions in the coming weeks,” Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an expert on North Korea at King's College London, told VICE News.
Those talks, however, would require some compromise from Washington.
“[Working-level talks] would involve the U.S. giving up on its denuclearization-first strategy and opt for an incremental approach to resolve the nuclear and the peace problems,” David Santoro, director and senior fellow of nuclear policy programs at Pacific Forum, told VICE News.
Speed is not important
For weeks Trump has dismissed criticism of North Korea’s perceived lack of progress on denuclearization, insisting he is happy with the pace of progress. He repeated that view on Wednesday.
“I've been saying very much from the beginning that speed is not that important to me,” Trump said. “What is important is that we do the right deal.”
One expert believes Kim has been paying close attention to Trump’s repeated claims and used this to his advantage during this week’s negotiations.
“Kim should rightly believe that lack of achievement at this meeting will not harm the future prospects of the negotiation process — basically, he did not believe there would be major negative consequences for not giving in to U.S. demands,” Baohui Zhang, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told VICE News.
But for the self-proclaimed dealmaker, leaving Vietnam without an accord will likely hurt.
“Reading his body language [Trump] seems pretty disappointed, not least because his ego of himself as a dealmaker has been harmed,” Colin Alexander, an expert in political communications at Nottingham Trent University, told VICE News.
Though not present in Hanoi, South Korea remains a crucial player in moving the denuclearization process forward, and Seoul said Wednesday it was disappointed with the outcome of the summit.
"[We] do feel regret that President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un could not reach complete agreement at today's summit. But it also appears that they have clearly made more meaningful progress than at any time in the past," a government spokesman said.
Experts agree that South Korea will now play a vital role in keeping the process alive.
“The lack of movement on the U.S.-DPRK agenda puts South Korea in a very awkward position, unable to secure the sanctions exemptions they were hoping for as part of this deal, which would facilitate the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation,” Town said.
On his flight back to Washington Trump called South Korean President Moon Jae-In to update him on the summit’s progress — or lack thereof. It will now fall to Moon to try and bring the two sides back together again.
“Seoul has to be the main driver of the diplomatic process, helping the US and North Korea rebuild momentum and helping to iron out their differences,” Pacheco Pardo said.
But one of the problems facing South Korea is that the White House, and especially Trump, may lose focus on the Korean issue in the coming weeks as home-grown problems, like Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller, take precedence.
“Despite the President’s stated will to continue negotiating with North Korea, in the current domestic political environment, there is a real risk of the momentum for this issue waning in a sea of competing interests,” Town said.
Cover image: President Donald Trump attends a news conference following his second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Tuan Mark/Getty Images)