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Key Moments and Some Optimism From Last Week’s Trump-Kim Summit

President Trump's Trip to Vietnam
President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea meet for a social dinner Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, for their second summit meeting. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Denuclearization talks between Trump and Kim Jong-un abruptly fell apart over the easing of sanctions on North Korea, but not all hope is lost for future talks.

Last Thursday the second meeting between President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam ended without any formal signs of progress towards the denuclearization of North Korea. However, there were some key moments during the summit and some hope that progress could still be made in the future.

What Happened in Vietnam?

In the first meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Jong-un expressed his willingness to terminate all activities at the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear site as long all international sanctions against North Korea were removed. This became the sticking point at the second meeting between Trump and Jong-un held last week.

“It was about the sanctions. Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that, “ Trump said in a press conference after the summit.

The exact nature of the breakdown at the summit was unclear as both sides blamed the other. However, the extent to which sanctions would be removed and when was clearly a contentious issue. The New York Times also reported that Trump revealed for the first time his administration was aware of a second enrichment site other than Yongbyon, though to what extent that played in the negotiations is unclear.

Key Moments in Vietnam

Jong-un Speaks Directly to Foreign Journalists 

Kim Jong-un surprised everyone by answering questions from foreign journalists for the first time. Watch the exchange in the video below.

One of the first questions posed to Kim Jong-un was whether he was willing to denuclearize which Jong-un responded, “If I’m not willing to do that, I won’t be here right now.”

No Lunch, No Deal 

After a shared dinner, the summit came to an abrupt end when Trump and Jong-un suddenly left the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel without dining on their planned lunch. On the menu was snow fish, foie gras, and candied ginseng, but the empty plates gave an ominous message: no lunch, no deal.

“The cancellation was really last minute. Everything was ready,” one of two sources in the hotel told Reuters.

Jong-Un’s Mysterious Sister

Much speculation was made of Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who accompanied her older sibling during the Hanoi visit. Yo Jong was often caught on a camera in background shots as she lurked around her brother and President Trump.

Yo Jong is the director of North Korea’s Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea and her presence around her brother and during the Trump-Kim summit is seen as a sign of her importance to the North Korean regime.

The White House Restricts Press Access

On the first day of the summit, a journalist asked Trump about his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen who testified before Congress while Trump was in Vietnam and said that his former boss was a liar, cheat and a racist. Trump ignored the question but it did not go unnoticed.

Less than an hour later, the White House banned several journalists from covering the next media event in Hanoi, a decision that sparked protests from White House-based correspondents.

The White House Correspondents’ Association slammed the unexpected decision, calling it a “capricious decision” and a retreat behind “arbitrary last-minute restrictions on coverage.”

According to Vivian Salama from the Wall Street Journal, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders restricted press access due to the highly sensitive nature of the meetings.

After returning home, Trump blamed his ex-lawyer for ruining the Hanoi meeting following Cohen’s testimony before the Congress.

Otto Warmbier 

To much controversy, Trump said he took Jong-un at his word that the North Korean leader did not know about the handling of the young American Otto Warmbier while in North Korean custody. Warmbier was a 21-year-old University of Virginia student when he was arrested in 2016 in North Korea for allegedly defaming a propaganda poster. Warmbier fell into a coma while in North Korean custody and died in June 2017 shortly after he was returned to the U.S.

“I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump said of Kim last week after their summit in Vietnam was cut short. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”

Trump also commented that Jong-un felt “badly about” the incident. Later Trump walked back his comments by claiming that he was misunderstood and that he did, in fact, blame North Korea for Warmbier’s death.

“Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death.”

“I love Otto and think of him often!” Trump said.

Who’s to blame for the failed talks?

A few hours after the summit ended, Trump called South Korean to say that he regretted he did not reach an agreement on denuclearization. However, Trump is still committed to solving the issue through dialogue, as the South Korean Presidential Palace said in a statement.

Trump publicly claimed North Korea was insisting on an end to all sanctions, a term the U.S. could not agree to.

North Korea claimed it was ready with a realistic proposal, but Trump rejected it, said North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. The minister added that Pyongyang was only seeking a partial lifting of the embargo, a statement contrary to what the U.S. said.

Ri added that his side is willing to demolish its Yongbyon nuclear complex, without specifying the preparations for dismantling the nuclear facility.

What’s Next After the Vietnam Trump-Kim summit?

While some were quick to point fingers at Trump when he walked away from the summit, others supported Trump’s decision for refusing to bow to Jong-un’s unacceptable demands.

“No agreement is better than a bad agreement,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former negotiator who currently chairs the Korean Peninsula Future Forum.

David Kim, a former State Department official, specializing in East Asia and nonproliferation, told VOX that the summit produced no winners, but added that both leaders are still committed to the peace process — as reflected by Jong-Un’s statement that he will not test missiles and Trump’s willingness to stop military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

“Trump said he’ll continue to stop joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula, which to North Korea has always been an offensive gesture. In a period of detente, I think it makes sense to stop offensive military exercises that’s really aimed at North Korea but also China,” Kim said.

Despite the disappointing results, North Korea’s state-owned news agency KCNA reported that Jong-un is willing to maintain communication with Trump and promised more upcoming talks. The KCNA report contradicted a statement from North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui who said Jong-un had lost enthusiasm for making an agreement in the near future.

Before flying back to Washington Trump put his own positive spin on the Vietnam meeting.

“This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out,” he said. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands.”

“There’s a warmth that we have and I hope that stays,” he added.

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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