President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un abruptly cut short their second summit Thursday without reaching an agreement, a stunning collapse of talks that caused both leaders to leave their Vietnam meeting early and cancel a planned signing ceremony.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the leaders had a “very good and constructive meeting” and discussed ways to advance denuclearization and economic-driven concepts.” She said their teams looked forward to meeting “in the future,” but offered no specific time frame.
Both leaders’ motorcades roared away from the downtown Hanoi summit site within minutes of each other after both a lunch and the signing ceremony were scuttled. Trump’s end-of-summit news conference was moved up and White House aides said he would address the sudden change in plans.
The breakdown came just hours after Trump and Kim appeared to inch toward normalizing relations between their still technically-warring nations as the American leader tamped down expectations that their talks would yield an agreement by the reclusive country to take concrete steps toward ending its nuclear program.
In something of a role reversal, Trump deliberately ratcheted down some of the pressure on Pyongyang, abandoning his fiery rhetoric and declaring he was in “no rush. We just want to do the right deal.”
Kim, for his part, when asked whether he was ready to denuclearize, said “If I’m not willing to do that I won’t be here right now.”
Furthering the spirit of optimism, the leaders had seemed to find a point of agreement moments later when Kim was asked if the U.S. may open a liaison office in North Korea. Trump declared it “not a bad idea” and Kim called it “welcomable.” Such an office would mark the first U.S. presence in North Korea.
But questions persisted throughout the summit, including whether Kim was willing to make valuable concessions, what Trump would demand in the face of rising domestic turmoil and whether the meeting could yield far more concrete results than the leaders’ first summit, a meeting in Singapore less than a year ago that was long on dramatic imagery but short on tangible results.
There had long been skepticism that Kim would be willing to give away the weapons his nation had spent decades developing and Pyongyang felt ensured its survival.
Trump had signaled a willingness to go slow: In a sharp break from his rhetoric a year ago, when he painted the threat from Pyongyang as so grave that “fire and fury” may need to be rained down on North Korea, Trump made clear he was willing to accept a more deliberate timetable for denuclearization.
“I can’t speak necessarily for today, Trump said, “but … over a period of time I know we’re going to have a fantastic success with respect to Chairman Kim and North Korea.”
In an unexpected development, Kim on Thursday fielded questions from Western journalists for likely the first time, with the reporters receiving some coaching from the U.S. president, who implored, “Don’t raise your voice, please. This isn’t like dealing with Trump.” The North Korean leader struck a largely hopeful note, saying “I believe by intuition that good results will be produced.”
After a reporter asked Kim if they were discussing human rights, Trump interjected to say they were “discussing everything” though he did not specifically address the issue.
Earlier, accompanied only by translators, the unlikely pair — a 72-year-old brash billionaire and a 35-year-old reclusive autocrat — displayed a familiarity with one another as they began the day’s negotiations. After a 40-minute private meeting, the leaders went for a stroll on the Hotel Metropole’s lush grounds, chatting as they walked by a swimming pool before being joined by aides to continue talks.
“The relationship is just very strong and when you have a good relationship a lot of good things happen,” Trump said. He added that “a lot of great ideas were being thrown about” at their opulent dinner the night before. He offered no specifics.
“I believe that starting from yesterday, the whole world is looking at this spot right now,” Kim said via his translator. “I’m sure that all of them will be watching the moment that we are sitting together side by side as if they are watching a fantasy movie.”
Possible outcomes that had been considered were a peace declaration for the Korean War that the North could use to eventually push for the reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, or sanctions relief that could allow Pyongyang to pursue lucrative economic projects with the South.
Even before the summit fell apart, it unfolded against a backdrop of tumult and investigations at home.
Hours before he sat down again with Kim, Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, delivered explosive congressional testimony claiming the president is a “conman” who lied about his business interests with Russia. Trump, unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, tweeted that Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.” Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for lying to Congress.
Kim, meanwhile, has emerged with confidence on the world stage over the last year, repeatedly stepping out diplomatically with South Korean, Chinese and U.S. leaders.
But experts worry that the darker side of Kim’s leadership is being brushed aside in the rush to address the North’s nuclear weapons program: the charges of massive human rights abuses; the prison camps filled with dissidents; a near complete absence of media, religious and speech freedoms; the famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands; and the executions of a slew of government and military officials, including his uncle and the alleged assassination order of his half-brother in a Malaysian airport.
North Korea is a fiercely proud nation that has built a nuclear program despite decades of some of the world’s harshest sanctions, but extreme poverty and political repression has caused tens of thousands to flee, mostly to South Korea. After their first summit, where Trump and Kim signed a joint statement agreeing to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the president prematurely declared victory, tweeting that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
The facts did not then, and still do not now, support that claim.