Report

Pompeo: Time to ‘Regroup’ After Vietnam Summit

North Korea disputes Trump's account of what went wrong in Vietnam. Can diplomats salvage Trump's ultimate deal with Kim Jong Un?

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hold a meeting during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hold a meeting during the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump tried to strike a positive tone after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly broke down on Thursday with no agreement, saying the two countries could still “do something very special.”

“This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out,” Trump told reporters before he left Vietnam, where he traveled for a highly anticipated second summit with the North Korean leader. “There’s a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will.”

But hours later, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho shattered the cordial atmosphere Trump put forward by disputing the president’s account of what happened.

In a rare press conference, the foreign minister said North Korea asked for only partial sanctions relief in exchange for closing its Yongbyon nuclear facility, disputing Trump’s account that Kim asked the U.S. side to roll back all sanctions. Ri added that North Korea was ready to permanently end nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and said the opportunity for a deal may not come again.

For now, at least, the job of salvaging a deal reverts to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun.

“My sense is it will take a little while, we’ll each need to regroup a little bit,” Pompeo told reporters after the summit, en route to the Philippines after Vietnam. He said he was “hopeful” that Biegun, the special representative for North Korea who led the working-level talks to tee up the Trump-Kim meeting, would meet with his North Korean counterparts again soon.

“I saw the goodwill between the two leaders, and so I hope we can come up with a plan,” Pompeo said. “Chairman Kim reiterated on this trip he is fully prepared to denuclearize. He recommitted that they will not conduct missile tests, they will not conduct nuclear tests. Those are good things.”

The talks collapsed after Trump said he refused to bow to Kim’s demand to lift all sanctions in exchange for shuttering the nuclear facility, without addressing the rest of the country’s nuclear weapons program or its missile arsenal.

The outcome–and disputed account of what happened from both sides–is a diplomatic blow to Trump, who claimed after his first summit with Kim that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” After a year of frenzied diplomacy, including two summits between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, several visits by Pompeo to Pyongyang, and working-level meetings, it remains unclear whether North Korea is ready to fully comply. North Korea has stubbornly refused to give up its nuclear program for decades, despite international isolation and waves of severe sanctions. All diplomatic efforts by past U.S. administrations did not curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions—something Trump has fixated on to prove he can succeed where his predecessors have failed.

Some analysts who in the run-up to the summit feared Trump would be outmaneuvered by Kim were pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Washington’s regional allies South Korea and Japan quietly fretted that Trump could strike a deal over their heads that would roll back the U.S. troop presence in South Korea or induce Kim to cut longer-range missiles that threaten the U.S. homeland without addressing short- and medium-range missiles.

After his summit with Kim in Singapore last year, Trump decided to cease some military exercises with South Korea in a concession that rattled Seoul and was criticized by former officials in Washington.

“The fact that President Trump did not make unnecessary concessions that undermine allies and partners as he did in Singapore can be viewed as a positive,” said Paul Haenle, a former national security council staffer under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama who worked on past rounds of North Korea negotiations.

“Any deal reached with North Korea must be in the best interests of the U.S. and our allies,” added Haenle, now at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Olivia Enos of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said Trump was “right to walk away from North Korea’s untenable request for complete sanctions relief in exchange for incomplete denuclearization.” She said the administration should maintain its sanctions pressure to push North Korea on both denuclearization and human rights.

Others said Trump had set himself up for failure from the outset.

“What we’ve seen over the last year—and what we saw in Hanoi—was diplomatic amateur hour,” said Michael Fuchs, a former diplomat in the Obama administration now at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank. “There should be no more summits until the two sides are ready to announce an agreement that includes concrete, verifiable concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program. Let the real negotiators from both sides get to work. Until then, no more reality TV summitry.”

The Trump administration appeared willing to offer Kim some concessions in Vietnam, including setting up diplomatic liaison offices in each other’s countries, easing some sanctions, and formally declaring an end to the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.

But the overtures weren’t enough to budge Kim from his position, and it remains unclear how North Korea will respond to the collapse of talks.

The U.S. president has also received criticism for not addressing North Korea’s human rights record, widely considered one of the worst in the world. He raised eyebrows in Vietnam when he addressed the case of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was detained in North Korea for over a year, then delivered to the United States in a coma shortly before he died.

Trump told reporters that Kim denied any knowledge of Warmbier’s situation at the time. “He felt badly about it. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later,” Trump said. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”

Last year, through talks with Kim, the Trump administration secured the release of three other U.S. citizens detained in North Korea. They arrived home last May, in the run-up to Trump’s first summit with Kim in Singapore the following month.

Back in Washington, Democrats were quick to criticize the administration over the collapse of the talks. “What we saw in Hanoi was amateur hour with nuclear weapons at stake and the limits of reality TV diplomacy,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN on Thursday. “I will give him credit in this respect: If you are not going to get a good deal, then you do need to walk away. The problem is you shouldn’t set yourself up for that proposition as the president.”

Update, Feb. 28, 2019: This article was updated to include comments from Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s foreign minister. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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