The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korea’s foreign minister says country seeks only partial sanctions relief

After the second U.S.-North Korea summit came to an abrupt end on Feb. 28 in Hanoi, President Trump and North Korea had contradictory reasons for its collapse. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

HANOI — President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly cut short their two-day summit Thursday, with talks collapsing amid slightly differing accounts of why both leaders walked away without an agreement or a clear plan on how to keep the dialogue alive.

The fundamental disagreements rested on the trade-offs between the United States providing relief from sanctions and North Korea’s steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The two leaders and their delegations departed the meeting site in Vietnam’s capital without sitting for a planned lunch or participating in a scheduled signing ceremony.

The breakdown raised serious doubts about whether the two sides can keep the diplomatic outreach moving forward. A possible U.S.-North Korea chill could also have wider spillover into the groundbreaking exchanges between the North and U.S. ally South Korea.

On Feb. 28, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended their Hanoi summit, aimed at negotiating North Korea's denuclearization, without a deal. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

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 only one nuclear facility, which still would have left Pyongyang with a large arsenal of missiles and warheads.

But Trump also raised concerns about North Korea’s concealment of parts of its nuclear industry.

Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, offered a slightly different take at a rare news conference, arguing that Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material.

Pelosi needles Trump after collapse of talks with Kim

The scene in Vietnam during the second Trump-Kim summit

Feb. 28, 2019 | President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Speaking to reporters directly afterward, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, suggested Kim had “lost the will to engage in dealmaking” as the talks unraveled. The United States, she said, was missing a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and she said no future meetings between the two sides were planned.

“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.”

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 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 index ended down 0.8 percent. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average was down.

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.”

In a first, Kim Jong Un takes a question from a foreign journalist

Choe, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, 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.”

The United States says U.N. sanctions cannot be unwound until North Korea fully denuclearizes. But it had left open the door to some marginal relief of unilateral U.S. sanctions if North Korea took steps in the right direction.

North Korea’s foreign minister said the North had sought an end to “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people in particular,” citing five out of 11 sanctions packages imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

While not total sanctions relief, that would have amounted to a significant easing of the pressure on North Korea.

Trump said Kim promised he would not conduct missile launches or test nuclear weapons. In return for sanctions relief, 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.

“I think they were surprised we knew,” he said. “We know the country very well, believe it or not. We know every inch of that country, and we have to get what we have to get.”

Speaking in Manila Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that North Korea had “basically asked for full sanctions relief,” in return for “relatively undefined” concessions that were not of a scope to satisfy Trump and justify relieving international sanctions.

“They were pretty expansive with respect to what they were prepared to do at Yongbyon, but there was still not complete clarity with respect to the full scope of what they were prepared to offer,” he said. “It is one of the reasons I hope we can get back so we can put some definition around that.”

Why North Korea’s Yongbyon is at the heart of the Trump-Kim talks

Ri, North Korea’s foreign minister, later confirmed that the North would be willing to “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site and allow U.S. nuclear experts to observe. Choe said this would include a facility to enrich uranium at that site.

But neither Ri nor Choe mentioned uranium enrichment facilities at other sites, leaving doubts about the North’s sincerity in the talks.

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

Trump zeroed in on sanctions as the key sticking point.

“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 de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”

Pompeo said he hoped the two sides would be able to narrow differences in the future, but he did not announce any 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.”

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.”

Trump’s North Korea strategy wins over some experts

In the run-up to the talks, the United States had been offering to declare an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War and open liaison offices in each other’s capitals, while demanding that North Korea at least agree to end its production of fissile material to make bombs.

But it was clear that the North Korean counteroffer left a large gap between the two sides.

Still, after two days of meetings with Kim at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, Trump continued to praise Kim. He called him a great leader and boasted about the warmth of their friendship.

Trump did not publicly 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, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, Trump said he had.

Republicans push back on Trump’s trust of Kim

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.”

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

“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.

But Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation said no deal was better than a bad deal at this summit, commending Trump for walking away. 

Although Trump has pointed to a moratorium on testing that has been in place since November 2017, U.S. intelligence officials say North Korea has continued to develop its weapons programs while publicly engaging with the United States and South Korea in denuclearization talks.

John Hudson and Min Joo Kim in Hanoi and Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.