By Jihye Lee, Youkyung Lee, Nick Wadhams, and Bloomberg
March 1, 2019

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to meet again with President Donald Trump to continue nuclear negotiations after a two-day summit between the leaders collapsed Thursday amid disagreement over sanctions relief and conflicting accounts of Pyongyang’s demands.

Kim’s pledge was released Friday through North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA in a report offering a more optimistic outlook than the regime’s top diplomats gave in a rare news conference hours earlier. Kim expressed appreciation for Trump’s “active efforts toward results” and called the summit talks “productive.”

Earlier, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho had disputed Trump’s claim that Kim had demanded a complete removal of economic sanctions — which the U.S. president said led him to break off talks. Another top regime diplomat signaled a hardening stance, telling reporters Kim may have “lost the will” to make a deal on his country’s nuclear program.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui told reporters the “U.S. not accepting our proposal is missing an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years.”

The KCNA report, however, called the efforts to reduce tensions of “great significance.”

Kim has limited options as international sanctions choke North Korea’s faltering economy, and securing some measure of economic support from China would likely be crucial for the regime. The North Korean leader in January made a similar threat to shift toward a “new path” if Trump didn’t lift sanctions and then proceeded to meet the U.S. president.

Trump ended the summit early and said Kim “wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that.” In exchange, Trump said the North Korean leader had offered to dismantle his nation’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

Ri, however, said North Korea had only asked for relief from sanctions enacted in 2016 and 2017. He said that would mean removing sanctions imposed by five of 11 United Nations resolutions against the country.

In comments later to reporters traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, a senior State Department official said the North Koreans were unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons program, and the sanctions relief would have given North Korea “many, many billions of dollars.” The official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said North Korea was asking for relief of all sanctions except those covering its weapons.

The official said the U.S. looks forward to more talks, while acknowledging that challenges remain. Among them is the fact that the two sides still don’t agree on what “denuclearization” means.

In return for sanctions relief, the North Korean offer included shuttering its plutonium and uranium facilities at Yongbyon under the observation of U.S. experts, Choe said.

Yongbyon is a sprawling complex with dozens of buildings and reactors including plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities and research centers. It is a crown jewel of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

The U.S. presented Kim with evidence of additional secret nuclear sites, surprising the North Koreans, according to Trump. Pompeo said that even without Yongbyon, the country would still possess missiles, warheads and other elements of a nuclear program that were unacceptable to the U.S.

Several analysts said North Korea’s demands for sanctions relief included all of the key sanctions, as the U.S. contends, and would have left the Trump administration little leverage to address other hidden enrichment facilities.

“This is basically asking sanctions relaxation on everything. There is not even a value to consider,” the North’s offer, said Shin Beomchul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

The UN sanctions resolutions imposed since 2016 include limits on North Korea’s crude oil imports, a ban on the North’s exports of key items such as seafood and minerals as well as a cap on North Korean laborers working overseas.

Ri told reporters that “first stage” steps such as those Pyongyang proposed are “inevitable” for the process of complete denuclearization. He added that North Korea’s stance “will never be changed” and that “it could be difficult to meet again.”

“Chairman Kim got the feeling that he didn’t understand the way Americans calculate,” Choe added. “I have a feeling that Chairman Kim may have lost the will” to negotiate with Trump.

The North Korean officials’ hastily arranged news conference was a rare departure for the regime, which usually avoids directly engaging with Western media and communicates through formal statements. They assembled reporters on Friday just after midnight local time. Ri spoke and then Choe, the number two in the ministry, stayed behind afterward for a question and answer session.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, speaking to reporters during a refueling stop in Alaska on Trump’s return, confirmed that the president had been briefed on the North Korean news conference. “We want to make sure we have a good deal, not just a deal,” she said.

The summit ended abruptly before a scheduled “working lunch” at Hanoi’s iconic Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel. Reporters were ushered out of a dining room prepared for the two leaders and their aides, and the White House announced there had been a schedule change. Soon after, the two leaders separately departed the hotel and Trump left the country ahead of schedule.

Trump received bipartisan praise from U.S. congressional leaders for walking out of the summit.

“President Trump did the right thing by walking away and not cutting a poor deal for the sake of a photo op,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky commended the president. “Kim Jong Un now has a long train ride home, and he’ll have time to reflect on the future that is still within North Korea’s grasp,” he said.

The summit’s collapse sent global stocks sliding as the future of U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks remained uncertain. While Trump said the meeting ended amicably with a handshake, he hasn’t committed to another summit with Kim.

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