North Korea has spoken out on why it believes the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un ended early without any agreement — contradicting the picture painted by the United States.
Foreign minister Ri Yong Ho denied the North had demanded that all economic sanctions should be lifted before dismantling a key nuclear facility, as Mr Trump had told reporters before leaving Hanoi on Thursday.
In an unusual midnight press conference at the North Korean delegation’s hotel, Mr Ri said Kim had made a “realistic proposal” and only wanted some United Nations sanctions targeting citizens from 2016 and 2017 to be lifted.
“If the US releases partial sanctions, namely … those that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people, we will permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area, in the presence of US experts,” he said.
When the US insisted Pyongyang would have to go further than dismantling the Yongbyon site to obtain this concession, he said: “It became crystal clear that the US was not ready to accept our proposal.”
And while the White House said there would be further negotiations between the two countries, Mr Ri warned “our proposal will never be changed.”
His comments in the Vietnamese capital came after the summit was abruptly terminated half an hour before the leaders were due to sit down for a midday lunch of foie gras and snow fish, before signing a joint agreement in an elaborate ceremony.
Despite the leaders’ optimistic talk of mutual respect and determination to achieve a historic re-imagining of the United States-North Korea relationship, their efforts had failed.
“Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” said Mr Trump in a subdued press conference in Vietnam after the pair went their separate ways.
In contrast to Mr Ri’s version of events, the US President said the impasse came down to Kim’s desire for all sanctions on North Korea to be lifted before he would take steps towards dismantling Yongbyon.
“They wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” said Mr Trump. “They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted, but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that.”
The facility at the centre of the argument is Yongbyon Nuclear Research Centre, believed to be the North’s most important reactor for enriching weapons-grade plutonium.
After the two leaders’ first summit in Singapore last June, Kim signed a joint statement with Mr Trump that promised “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.” Critics said the wording was too vague, and in the months that followed, this seemed borne out. While Kim did not hold further ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons tests, and blew up the entrance to atomic site Punggye-ri, recent satellite images suggest Yongbyon continues to produce bomb material. Mr Trump also revealed his administration was aware of a second enrichment site other than Yongbyon, suggesting the US believes North Korea’s secretive nuclear program goes much further.
Mr Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Kim would have to dismantle other parts of its program beyond Yongbyon before the US would lift all sanctions.
“We asked him to do more and he was unprepared to do that,” said Mr Pompeo at the news conference in Hanoi on Thursday. “Everyone had hoped we could do just a little bit better.”
North Korea has refused to produce an inventory of its nuclear assets, so it is unclear what the value of these sites are, and what capabilities the hermit kingdom has. Pyongyang is likely to be wary of revealing its hand for fear of giving the US a list of targets.
Finding a solution to this nuclear checkmate between the two countries could be harder than Mr Trump expected. Despite exchanging “beautiful letters” with Kim after the pair “fell in love”, the President has achieved little in the way of concrete progress towards denuclearisation.
Mr Trump played down expectations ahead of the summit, saying he was in “no rush” to make a deal.
On Thursday morning local time, he told reporters: “I’ve been saying very much from the beginning that speed is not that important to me. What’s important is that we do the right deal.”
But he said he “very much appreciated” the fact North Korea had not been testing rockets or missiles.
The President had attempted to entice Kim into taking steps towards denuclearisation with promises of great economic power. “I think it’s going to be an economic powerhouse,” he said of North Korea. “And it’s something I very much look forward to helping with.”
But his words were not enough for the young dictator, who would not budge over his demand for all sanctions to be lifted.
It took Kim two-and-a-half days to travel to Vietnam for the summit, taking an armoured train through China. But despite the breakdown of diplomacy efforts, the result is a win for the leader of the reclusive state.
In his early 30s, Kim is achieving something his father and grandfather did not, burnishing and normalising the North’s position on the world stage.
For the first time, Kim answered questions from US reporters. “Chairman Kim, are you confident, feeling good about a deal?” asked the Washington Post’s David Nakamura during the summit.
After his interpreter translated the question, Kim replied: “It’s too early to tell. I won’t prejudge. From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come.”
Asked by another American reporter whether he was ready to denuclearise, he said: “If I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Mr Trump added: “That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard.”
There was also discussion of opening a US liaison office in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, with Kim saying he would welcome the idea.
Yet despite US and North Korean negotiators spending days in the Vietnamese capital drafting an agreement ahead of the talks, the summit ended with no deal.
The two leaders departed the Metropole at around 1.30pm local time, four-and-a-half hours after the talks began and two hours earlier than planned.
But Mr Trump tried to strike an upbeat note, telling reporters: “This wasn’t a walk away like you get up and walk out.
“No, this was very friendly. We shook hands … There’s a warmth that we have and I hope that stays. I think it will. But we’re positioned to do something very special.”
The President said he trusted Kim would not fire any more missiles, calling him “quite a guy and quite a character” with “a certain vision and it’s not exactly our vision but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago.”
Mr Trump added: “I think frankly we’ll be good friends with Chairman Kim and North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.”
He defended Kim over the imprisonment, torture and death of American student Otto Warmbier in North Korea, saying he believed his counterpart did not know about Mr Warmbier’s treatment.
“I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” said the President. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders described the meetings as “very good and constructive” and said the leaders “discussed various ways to advance denuclearisation and economic driven concepts”.
She said “no agreement was reached at this time,” but that their “respective teams look forward to meeting in the future,”