A somewhat deflated President Donald Trump gave a brief press conference in Hanoi on Thursday morning, announcing that he was walking away from the summit where he hoped to strike a deal with North Korea.
The summit was seen as a path to denuclearizing North Korea, in exchange for sanctions relief. Many also surmised that a peace declaration to end the Korean War might have been in the cards.
Instead, a scheduled working lunch was abruptly canceled on Thursday, as was a signing ceremony. Trump’s press conference was moved up, and he announced there will be no deal.
The key sticking point in the talks was North Korea’s offer to dismantle the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the nation’s major nuclear facility, in exchange for lifted sanctions. U.S. negotiators reportedly did not feel North Korea was doing enough to merit sanctions relief.
Still, Trump described the talks as “very productive,” while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said there were “options” that could have been pursued, but weren’t.
“Sometimes, you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” Trump announced at a press conference. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the two sides “couldn’t get all the way” to a deal that would work for the United States.
The only agreement that remains in place is that North Korea will not test more nuclear weapons. There’s also the promise of more talks. But for now, the president is on his way back to the United States, without a deal.
— Department of State (@StateDept) February 28, 2019
The United States and North Korea still can’t agree on what total denuclearization means. For Pyongyang, it means the United States is withdrawing its military from South Korea and ceasing military exercises. For the United States, that means North Korea gives up its nuclear program while allowing the U.S. military to maintain its presence on the Korean Peninsula.
U.S. intelligence has indicated that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think any of us expected that the summit would end with no joint statement whatsoever,” said Mintaro Oba, former State Department diplomat focusing on the Koreas. “In fact, the potential outcomes that were being reported in advance of the summit — such as the establishment of U.S.-North Korea liaison offices and a joint peace declaration seemed eminently achievable.” She added that there are “a lot of unanswered questions here.”
Whether talks collapse over “over ambitious and inflexible negotiations” or the process simply needing more time, Oba said it pointed to the possible need for further soul-searching, as well as an obligation to “start negotiations at lower levels as quickly as possible to demonstrate the two countries are serious about achieving progress.”
South Korea’s presidential office released a statement on Thursday, calling the breakdown of the talks “regrettable,” adding that it remained hopeful that the “United States and North Korea will continue to have active dialogues on various levels going forward.”
For those worried about Trump striking a bad deal for the sake of signing a deal (like Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe), the news on Thursday was a relief. But for critics of the president’s ability to secure a deal, this reaffirms their doubts.
Meanwhile, caught between the two sides are those who live on the Korean Peninsula, who have lived with these tensions for decades. North Koreans have been living under brutal sanctions, all Koreans have worried about fresh outbreak of war, and millions of families have been separated on either side of the Demilitarized Zone (known as the DMZ).
Christine Ahn, Korea expert and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, who spoke to ThinkProgress from Hanoi on Thursday morning, said that Koreans felt like they were about to experience a “historic moment.”
“We were hoping that the two sides would come up with a statement declaring an end to the Korean War, which we know has been at the root cause of so much suffering,” said Ahn, who is part of the movement to push civil society — especially women — into the peace process.
“We started the day thinking ‘My God, this is going to happen….’ it just came as a tremendous shock to everyone anticipating this long-awaited announcement this morning… I can’t even tell you the mood here in Hanoi. It feels like we just missed a huge opportunity,” she said.
For Ahn, the fact that National Security Advisor John Bolton (who has never been a fan of normalizing relations with North Korea) was at the table, was concerning, but she’s hopeful that a congressional push to end the Korean War will yield results.
There was also some hope that Trump might push the issue of human rights violations in North Korea during the second summit. He did not. In fact, during the Thursday morning press conference, he told reporters that he believed Kim when he said North Korea was not responsible for the death of American college student Otto Warmbier.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” said Trump, echoing what he said about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“He felt badly about it. I did speak to him, He felt very badly,” said the president.
Warmbier was arrested while on a student trip to North Korea, jailed, and ultimately returned home having suffered extreme physical deterioration that suggested he had been tortured. He died shortly after returning home, never fully regaining consciousness.
Trump also did not bring up North Korea’s human rights violations in his first summit with Kim, held in Singapore last June. That summit resulted in a vague agreement that provided neither a timeline for denuclearization nor a definition of what that would mean.
“Not only did the summit in Hanoi between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fail to produce meaningful results, but Trump and his team have clearly squandered the seven months since the Singapore summit to make progress on even modest steps toward that meeting’s lofty goals,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in a statement.
“Now, the administration needs to explain what its diplomatic strategy going forward will be to the Congress, to the American people, and to our close allies.”