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North Korea contradicts Trump on the reason a summit deal fell apart

Trump said North Korea wanted all sanctions lifted. Pyongyang says that’s not quite what it wanted — but it still had a big ask.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their second summit meeting on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. 
Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Hanoi on February 28, 2019.
Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

North Korea is disputing part of President Donald Trump’s account of why he walked away from a deal with Kim Jong Un at their summit in Vietnam — and is hinting that Kim may be souring on the negotiating process with the United States.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters Thursday that North Korea had only asked the US for partial sanctions relief, and had offered a “realistic proposal” on denuclearization. According to Bloomberg News, North Korea had specifically requested a batch of sanctions imposed by a series of UN resolutions in 2016 and 2017 be lifted.

Ri’s statement appeared to rebut Trump’s claim that North Korea “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety” and that the US wasn’t prepared to do that. “They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that,” Trump said during his press conference. “We had to walk away from that.”

North Korea’s account can’t be entirely taken at face value. And experts told me the “partial sanctions” relief that North Korea says it requested included some of the toughest sanctions on the country — the ones that are squeezing North Korea the most. Which means that it was likely a much bigger ask than Ri’s statement makes it seem.

This rare North Korean press conference adds another twist to the abrupt ending of the Trump-Kim summit. North Korea has something to gain by challenging Trump’s declaration: Kim, too, traveled all the way to Vietnam just to return to Pyongyang empty-handed. That might partially explain why North Korean officials indicated that Kim may have “lost the will” to negotiate in the wake of the summit collapse.

These dueling narratives are troublesome, especially since Trump and Kim had apparently been exchanging “love letters” only a few short weeks ago. It might not mean a permanent setback to negotiations, but it’s still a worrying sign after the fanfare of this week’s summit in Vietnam.

Trump said, Kim said

Trump and Kim were expected to sign a deal at the end of their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. That didn’t happen, Trump explained at his press conference, because North Korea wanted full sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down Yongbyon, a key nuclear facility.

North Korea has a slightly different story. It says it asked for partial sanctions relief — specifically five of 11 placed on the country by UN resolutions in 2016 and 2017. Those sanctions are among the ones hurting North Korea the most, experts told me.

To remove them in exchange for North Korea dismantling a Yongbyon — a critical component of the regime’s nuclear program, but not the end of the nuclear program entirely — is actually a big ask.

Maybe Trump was being hyperbolic when he spoke, but given the heft of North Korea’s request, some experts say Trump’s decision to walk away may have been the right call.

“If NK was asking for the lifting of 5 UN sanctions in return for dismantlement of Yongbyon, Trump was right to reject,” Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at Stimson Center, wrote on Twitter. “But they should have known that before they got there.”

And that issue — that the US should have known what North Korea wanted before the summit — is probably the more important takeaway.

As Vox’s Alex Ward points out, Trump’s decision to rely almost solely on his personal engagement with Kim meant that much of the hard, behind-the-scenes work required to make a massive deal like this went largely neglected. Ward writes:

It didn’t have to be this way. The president could have gone the tried-and-true diplomatic route of letting working-level staff, like America’s special envoy for North Korea negotiations Stephen Biegun, figure out the finer details of a deal. After months or even years of painstaking work, those staffers could produce a near-ready agreement for Trump and Kim to finalize together.

So while it seems that Trump may have turned down a bad deal, it’s an outcome that might have been avoided.

Is this the end of the Trump-Kim love letters? Not quite.

It’s still not clear what went down in Vietnam, and how either the US or North Korea miscalculated. Secretary of State Pompeo, traveling to Manila on Thursday, declined to give details when asked by a reporter whether North Korea had sprung the sanctions request last minute, or if Trump had thought he could crack Kim when they met face-to-face.

“I’ve always not talked about the details or the in and outs of the negotiations,” Pompeo said. “I will say we haven’t been surprised by much of anything,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo acknowledged that the two sides might have to regroup, but made it clear the US wants to continue negotiating with North Korea. Trump also expressed hope for continued progress and diplomacy in his remarks in Hanoi.

Whether North Korea wants to do the same is another question. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui told reporters at the press conference that Kim “got the feeling that he didn’t understand the way Americans calculate.”

“I have a feeling that Chairman Kim may have lost the will,” she added, according to Bloomberg.

This is not a promising sentiment from North Korea, but it also might be premature to start worrying about the return of “fire and fury.”

David Kim, a former State Department East Asia and nonproliferation official, told me that the North Korean press conference was as much intended for Western consumption as it was for North Koreans back home.

“The propaganda machine, that is what it’s there for,” Kim said. “It’s to portray success depending on how it benefits dear leader. Kim Jong Un didn’t get sanctions relief. He traveled 60 hours to get there, and didn’t have anything to show for it. The least he can do is say, ‘You know what, I don’t know if I’ll go back to this.’”

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