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Trump-Kim Summit

US and North Korea give conflicting accounts of summit collapse

Pyongyang disputes Trump's claim that Kim sought end to all sanctions

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump stroll on the ground of Hanoi's Metropole hotel during their second summit on Feb. 28.   © Reuters

HANOI -- U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un clashed over irreconcilable differences at their nuclear summit here on Thursday, bringing the talks to a sudden end and casting a pall of uncertainty over Northeast Asia.

Hours after the breakdown, Washington and Pyongyang gave conflicting accounts of why the talks had failed, with the North Korean side disputing Trump's claim that Kim had asked for a full lifting of economic sanctions.

The world had been expecting the two leaders to make at least symbolic progress at their second summit, and they had appeared to be in good spirits until the early afternoon. But as the talks entered the final stretch, each side stuck to demands the other found unacceptable, prompting the abrupt cancellation of a planned signing ceremony for a "joint agreement."

"Basically, [North Korea] wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn't do that," Trump explained at a news conference afterward.

While Kim was prepared to dismantle the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex, this was not enough for Washington. "We had to have more than that," Trump said.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho gave a different account after Trump left Hanoi, saying that Pyongyang had sought only a partial lifting of sanctions.

North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks to reporters at the Melia Hotel in Hanoi late on Feb. 28.   © AP

In a rare midnight news conference, Ri said North Korea "only asked the U.S. to lift sanctions in five areas, including those that affect the private economy and civilian life, out of the 11 total imposed by the United Nations Security Council," rejecting U.S. claims that the North wanted all penalties scrapped.

Ri also said North Korea had offered a written promise to permanently suspend all nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

He added that they had offered to dismantle the country's main nuclear site at Yongbyon, but that the U.S. insisted until the end that North Korea scrap one more nuclear facility in addition to Yongbyon despite Pyongyang's offer to halt all future nuclear tests. "It became clear that the U.S. was not prepared to accept our proposals," Ri said.

North Korea has already presented its "best-case scenario" and "will not change our position even if the U.S. calls for a renegotiation," Ri told reporters.

Choe Son Hui, a vice foreign minister also at the conference, said that the U.S. has "missed its opening," adding, "I got the sense that Chairman Kim Jong Un could lose his interest in further talks in response to the U.S."

Choe said no decisions have been made regarding a third summit between Kim and Trump. "It is difficult to say whether the U.S. will be presented with another opportunity like this," she said.

The Korea Central News Agency, the regime's media mouthpiece, said on Friday that Kim and Trump had agreed to continue discussing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"Our majestic supreme leader and President Trump agreed to continue to have productive talks on matters discussed at the Hanoi summit, keeping relations closely for the considerable development in the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the relations between the D.P.R.K. and the U.S.," KCNA reported.

The state media said the two leaders expressed confidence that their countries would further develop relations if they overcome barriers with "wisdom and patience."

One reason for the gap between the two sides seems to be Washington's and Pyongyang's differing views on Yongbyon. North Korea considers it its crown jewel, and that dismantling the complex, which houses many of the country's nuclear facilities, would be equivalent to gutting its nuclear program.

But for the U.S., Yongbyon represents only one piece of the puzzle. Trump suggested he pressed Kim on other sites that have not been disclosed. "They were surprised that we knew," the president said, reiterating that he was in no rush to strike a deal. "I'd much rather do it right than do it fast."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accompanied Trump at the news conference, said bluntly: "We asked [Kim] to do more. He was unprepared to do that."

The U.S. refuses to budge on sanctions at this point, since lifting them now would leave it with no cards to play on the rest of North Korea's nuclear program or its ICBMs. Kim "wants to just do areas that are less important than the areas that we want," Trump told reporters before leaving Vietnam.

Representatives from both countries "look forward to meeting in the future," the White House said in a statement. But the failure to reach even a symbolic accord raises real questions over whether negotiators can break the impasse over denuclearization and sanctions relief.

The president said the talks ended in a "friendly" manner but gave no timetable for a third summit.

Talking to reporters on the plane out of Hanoi, Pompeo said that it may take "a little while" for working-level officials to come back to the negotiating table. "We'll each need to regroup a bit," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in Hanoi after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was cut short on Feb. 28.   © Reuters

"They will have to go back to working level talks to find a mutually acceptable agreement," said Michael Bosack, former deputy chief of government relations for the U.S. Forces in Japan.

In the meantime, the deadlock looks costly for Pyongyang. The sanctions have already cut deep into its isolated economy -- one of the world's poorest. The country's gross national income per capita came to 1.46 million won ($1,300) in 2017, only 4.3% that of South Korea, according to South Korea's statistics agency.

The summit had raised hopes that this might change. In Hanoi, Trump kept stating that North Korea has the potential to become an "economic powerhouse." Some argue that if sanctions are lifted and Pyongyang pursues a Vietnam-style liberalization process, it would see a massive inflow of goods and capital.

Morgan Stanley estimated the volume of investment could reach $9 billion a year. But for the foreseeable future, the country faces enduring hardship.

North Korea had been wholly focused on the leaders summit since last fall, after talks between its top negotiator Kim Yong Chol and Pompeo began to falter over whether North Korea should disclose a list of its nuclear assets. But Kim Jong Un seems to have overestimated his rapport with Trump, as well as how affected Trump is by setbacks in domestic policy.

"Returning home with nothing to show will hurt Chairman Kim," said Atsuhito Isozaki, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

"The U.S. is at a slight advantage after the summit essentially fell apart," said Waseda University professor Lee Jong-won. "The breakdown likely took Chairman Kim by surprise."

The disappointing summit is likely to sting South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well, as he has been vocally encouraging the process as a mediator. Moon is scheduled to announce what his government calls a "New Korean Peninsula Policy" on Friday, but the outcome of the Trump-Kim talks may force the liberal South Korean leader to recalibrate his strategy.

South Korean stocks fell sharply on the news that there was no deal. The benchmark Kospi dropped 1.76% to end the day at 2,195.44.

"The negotiator-in-chief has spoken," said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. "If the problem is how he described it -- lifting all sanctions for just Yongbyon -- I wouldn't have done the deal either."

Wit posed the question just about everyone in Asia is asking now: "What comes next on this roller coaster ride?"

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