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Nukes and sanctions: What actually went wrong for Trump and Kim Jong Un

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Hanoi on Thursday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week was supposed to iron out some of the details of the historic — though remarkably vague — agreement the two leaders had reached when they met in Singapore on June 12.

Instead, the Hanoi summit ended early and abruptly, without an agreement between Trump and Kim. Analysts are now picking over accounts of the talks to try to work out what went wrong.

The conclusion most have reached is that there remains a chasm between the U.S. and North Korean negotiating parties on two specific issues: nuclear facilities and sanctions. But exactly how that disagreement played out depends on whom you listen to.

What North Korean nuclear facilities are at stake?

The disagreement over what North Korea would give up with its nuclear program appears to center on the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. This site has long been at the center of U.S.-North Korea negotiations; it has been described as the “heart” of North Korea’s nuclear program. The site has nuclear reactors and is believed to be the only source of a number of fissile materials that would be needed to make weapons.

Closing Yongbyon would be a big deal, but exactly how it is closed and even what is defined as the site would need to be worked out. There’s a difference between North Korea agreeing to freeze production at the site, for example, and letting in foreign inspectors who could verify that the site has been permanently dismantled.

The site itself is sprawling, raising questions about whether all of it could be shut down in one deal — and whether there are other sites that North Korea keeps secret, such as a suspected uranium enrichment plant, that would allow it to continue its nuclear program. Closing Yongbyon would also do little to address nuclear weapons that North Korea has already produced.

What did North Korea agree to do about Yongbyon?

It’s not exactly clear, but we can make some educated guesses. Trump told reporters Thursday that Kim had said he was willing to close Yongbyon but not other secret facilities. “I think they were surprised we knew,” Trump 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.”

At a later news conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said his government had offered a “realistic proposal” for denuclearization that would “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site under the observation of U.S. nuclear experts.

What did it want in return?

In return for closing Yongbyon, Trump said, North Korea said that it had asked for a complete lifting of sanctions. This, he explained, was the problem. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” Trump said Thursday. “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.”

Even analysts who support engagement with North Korea were surprised by that. “If the North Koreans wanted all sanctions lifted, in return for dismantling Yongbyon, I would have walked away also,” Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said in a phone call with reporters Thursday.

Are we sure that North Korea asked for complete sanctions relief?

No. At Ri’s news conference later Thursday after Trump had left Hanoi, the North Korean foreign minister disputed the president’s account, suggesting instead that North Korea had asked for only “partial relief from sanctions” that hurt “people’s livelihoods.”

Still, the partial relief that Kim may have sought from Trump appears to have been substantial. Rather than focusing on the unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States, North Korea appears to be focused on the sanctions installed by the U.N. Security Council in recent years. Of the 11 resolutions that have imposed sanctions on North Korea since 2006, Ri said North Korea was focused on only the most recent five, which were installed in 2016 and 2017.

That’s a problem: These are by far the strictest sanctions on North Korea. And the fact that they are multilateral sanctions would make them difficult, if not impossible, to reimpose if the agreement went south.

A senior State Department official told The Washington Post that North Korea’s request had included “metals, raw materials, transportation, seafood, coal exports, refined petroleum imports, raw petroleum imports.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department guidelines for a briefing, said it “was basically all the sanctions except armaments.”

Is there a way forward?

Clearly, the talks didn’t go well. With nuclear facilities and sanctions in disagreement, the two sides couldn’t even come to some agreement on lower-hanging fruit — the opening of liaison offices or more work on finding the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War — as a face-saving gesture to claim progress. The early end to the talks suggests that at least one side was ill-prepared.

But the sides now understand each other’s positions better. That could provide a way forward for future talks. In particular, the United States can clearly see now that sanctions are what North Korea is most worried about. Though the lifting of Security Council sanctions may be an impossible ask, working out ways of suspending parts of these sanctions temporarily may be possible.

Crucially, neither side has returned to “fire and fury” rhetoric. North Korean state media has portrayed the talks as a success. Trump, too, has said they made progress. “We know what they want and they know what we must have,” he tweeted Sunday.

The big question, however, is not only how the two sides can reach an agreement but also whether they can avoid inertia as the excitement around the talks ends.

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