Hanoi, Vietnam – President Donald Trump decided to “walk away” from the negotiation table in the Vietnamese capital, leaving North Korea without sanctions relief and the United States without Pyongyang’s commitment towards denuclearisation that it sought.
The lead-up to the second summit between the US and North Korea promised a different world after the talks. Both leaders greeted each other with smiles in Hanoi, sitting together and oozing optimism.
Trump sought a guarantee from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Pyongyang would stop testing its missiles and nuclear weapons. In return, North Korea demanded the lifting of the economic sanctions – and that, ultimately, became the sticking point in the talks.
But there was drama after Air Force One took off for Washington on Thursday evening. While the US president repeatedly said Pyongyang wanted sanctions lifted entirely, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, in a late-night press conference in Hanoi, clarified his side sought only a partial lifting and had offered a “realistic proposal”, including the dismantling of its main nuclear site at Yongbyon.
“It was the sanctions. They wanted them lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters after the summit was cut short, the signing ceremony and the working lunch cancelled.
“North Korea was willing to denuclearise but we couldn’t give up all the sanctions for that.”
‘One more’ measure
In a rare exchange between a North Korean official and reporters, Ri said the sanctions-dismantling deal was “the biggest denuclearisation step we can take based on the current level of trust between the two countries”.
“As we take steps toward denuclearisation, the most important issue is security but we thought it would be more burdensome for the US to take military-related measures, which is why we saw partial lifting of sanctions as corresponding action.”
The US demanded “one more” measure beyond dismantling Yongbyon, Ri said without elaborating.
While the White House insisted the dialogue will continue, Trump said the “walking away” was on friendly terms and they shook hands. Analysts say both sides lost a lot by the fact they return empty-handed following the collapse of the talks.
“Normally, a majority of the agreement is made ahead of a summit in order to prevent exactly something like this from happening,” Lami Kim, a former South Korean diplomat, told Al Jazeera.
“Trump will face huge criticism for flying halfway around the world when no deal had been negotiated.
“I think it doesn’t look good for Kim either. The North Korean media has been covering the summit and raising hopes for economic development. Now we will have to see what happens.”
‘Asking for too much’
North Korea has conducted no tests since late 2017, when there were months of growing tensions marked by nuclear and missile tests, fresh sanctions and threats of “total destruction”.
A recent report by Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation said North Korea appears to have produced enough bomb fuel in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.
On Thursday, Trump said Kim promised him there would be no resumption of North Korea’s missile testing.
Before the summit, North Korea warned it faced a food shortfall of around 1.4 million tonnes this year, highlighting the importance that lifting the economic sanctions would have on the country.
“North Korea’s domestic mentioning of wanting a better economy isn’t just a facade. They really mean it and getting rid of sanctions is a big deal for them,” Ben Young, a North Korea analyst and historian, told Al Jazeera.
“Kim wants to fashion himself as an economic reformer of sorts. Lifting of sanctions was thus imperative but they were simply asking for too much.”
Blow to South Korea
The stalemate is a big setback for South Korea as well, which was not only looking towards the talks to help end the Korean tensions but also revive inter-Korean trade.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim met three times last year as relations between Seoul and Pyongyang improved considerably. Last August, the two sides also allowed brief reunions of selected family members separated by the Korean War.
Kim and Moon had also agreed to take steps to reduce military threats.
With Seoul being a key partner in the US’s drive towards North Korea’s denuclearisation, Trump spoke to Moon on Thursday following his departure from Vietnam.
According to a Blue House statement, the South Korean president also offered to meet his US counterpart for an “in-depth consultation”.
“This is a big blow to South Korea, which was hoping to resume economic cooperation with North Korea and also to end the Korean War,” added Lami, who is also a lecturer at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong.
“President Moon will keep trying to mediate between the US and North Korea, but I think what will happen depends on how much concession on the denuclearisation front Kim will make.
“It is a stalemate but hopefully the two sides [the US and North Korea] will continue their negotiations and come up with an agreement. It is really unclear when they will be able to do so.”
Neither Trump nor the White House commented on when the next round of talks would take place. The US president is currently in the middle of a domestic turmoil.
The House has voted to overturn his national emergency declaration on the US-Mexico border wall funding issue.
On Wednesday, his former lawyer told Congress the US president was “a racist”, “conman” and a “cheat”. Those headlines may have proved to be distractions for Trump in Hanoi, but it may also mean that internal discussions on how to move ahead with the US-North Korea relations could be put on the backburner.
A similar move could also be seen from Pyongyang’s side, according to Young.
“My worry is that the North Korean leadership is now going to wait to see the results of next year’s elections. If a Democrat wins that, we will be back to square one because they have a nasty habit of taking an opposite stance to Trump.
“Time is on North Korea’s side.”
And while Trump flew back to Washington straight after the press conference at his hotel, the North Korean leader opted to stay in Vietnam for a “goodwill visit”.
Earlier this week, North Korean officials visited some hi-tech factories and a tourist site in Vietnam prior to the two-day talks.
The moves could imply that Kim, and his delegation, hope to leave Vietnam with some deals and hope for the future – even if it’s not in the manner they wanted.