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November 15, 2019

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump talk in the garden of the Metropole hotel during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 28, 2019. Photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

How far off is a deal? 4 takeaways from the Trump-Kim summit

The summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un ended Thursday without a new deal, a setback that underscored the major divide the two nations face in achieving a lasting peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Trump said Kim wanted the U.S. to lift all economic sanctions in exchange for dismantling some of North Korea’s nuclear facilities but would not agree to destroy some of the most important sites the U.S. identified.

“Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” Trump told reporters in Hanoi, saying he had papers ready to be signed but that it would not have been “appropriate.” “I would much rather do it right than do it fast,” he added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said talks with the North Koreans would continue and he was “optimistic” that the two sides would be able to come to an agreement in the future.

How long it will take to reach a deal, or even if a deal is really within reach, remains unclear. But foreign policy analysts said the events that took place at the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, did provide some insight into what still needs to be worked out.

The importance of pre-summit negotiations

White House officials insist they made significant progress before Trump and Kim met Wednesday, and that further gains were made in Hanoi despite the absence of a new agreement.

The summit took place less than a year after the leaders met for the first time in Singapore.

The Singapore meeting was largely seen as a starting point toward striking a deal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, though Trump frequently touted it as a major accomplishment. Hanoi was supposed to be different because representatives from both countries had been meeting in the months leading up to the summit in hopes that they could ink a deal after Trump and Kim sat down.

That did not happen.

“The failure to reach agreement today is the result of the lack of a real process in advance,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund.

As late as December, Pompeo and U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun had difficulty meeting face to face with their North Korean counterparts.

Rosenberger said in order to reach a deal later on, the two nations will need to establish a stronger negotiating channel to work through their differences.

Leading up to the summit the U.S. also emphasized that it would be patient and was in no hurry to make a deal. Trump himself said as much in his remarks after meeting Kim in Hanoi, telling reporters before he met privately with the North Korean leader that the “speed” of denuclearization wasn’t an issue for him. That approach might have backfired.

“If Trump does not feel an urgency for denuclearization of North Korea, then why would Kim?” said Jung Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

What North Korea is willing to give up (and what it’s not)

Trump indicated that North Korea was willing to dismantle some of its nuclear facilities, but not enough to justify the complete lifting of economic sanctions.

Specifically, Trump said Kim would have ordered the destruction of Yongbyon, the country’s main nuclear research center, but would not commit to dismantling other sites.

“That facility, while very big, it wasn’t enough,” Trump said of Yongbyon. The president suggested that if the U.S. agreed to remove economic sanctions, North Korea would have to dismantle a second uranium enrichment plant. Pompeo added that the U.S. wants North Korea to provide a list of all its nuclear facilities and missile systems and agree to a timetable for destroying them.

Trump also acknowledged that the U.S. and North Korea still have different definitions of denuclearization. The U.S. has insisted upon complete and irreversible dismantling of all nuclear capabilities, a view that apparently is at odds with North Korea’s interpretation.

U.S. officials signaled they are determined to work out the differences. Jenny Town, managing editor and producer of the online policy journal 38 North called that “encouraging” but warned as negotiations drag on “there is a real risk of the momentum for this issue waning amid a growing number of competing interests.”

What Kim gained and lost from the summit

Even without a deal, Kim might still spin the summit as a success, since it gave him more legitimacy on the world stage by meeting with a U.S. president for the second time in one year.

But Kim also suffered a major blow in Hanoi.

Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean Studies professor at Tufts University, said Kim was on the verge of gaining sanctions relief, a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War, and dragging out negotiations with the U.S. while it continued its weapons development. That would have amounted to a victory, but Trump walked away from the table, Lee said.

“Kim’s now learned a lesson: that Trump is not as malleable as he seems. But the situation is still under Kim’s control,” Lee said, adding that he expected North Korea to offer slightly more in upcoming negotiations.

The question is whether Trump would agree to a deal in the future that falls short of his stated goals.

Trump’s relationship with Kim

Despite the breakdown at the summit, Trump described his relationship with Kim as “strong,” “warm” and “friendly,” and said the summit ended cordially.

Trump also pointed out that the rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea had improved from a little more than a year ago. In 2017, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and called Kim “rocket man,” attacks that critics argued unnecessarily escalated tensions between the two countries. Recently, he told a crowd of supporters he and Kim “fell in love” when they began writing each other “beautiful” letters.

The change in their relationship from the last summit in Singapore was visible, especially in Kim, said the Brookings Institution’s Pak.

“[Kim’s] gestures were more natural, he spoke more, laughed easily with Trump, and there seemed to be more casual touching by the two men,” Pak said. “They even mirrored each other’s gestures.”

Kim also answered American reporters’ questions through an interpreter, in what is believed to be a first for a North Korean leader.

It is unclear when the leaders will meet again. Trump did not agree to another summit with Kim but did not rule out the possibility either.

“It might be soon. It might not be for a long time,” he said. “I would hope it would be soon.”

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