President Donald Trump looks on as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference after meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

HANOI: President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, abruptly ended their second summit meeting Thursday when negotiations collapsed after the two sides failed to agree on even the first steps on nuclear disarmament, a peace declaration or reducing sanctions on the North.

“It was about the sanctions,” Trump said at an afternoon news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, referring to Kim’s demand that the United States lift harsh economic sanctions imposed on North Korea with the approval of the United Nations. “Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that.”

“Sometimes you have to walk,” Trump added.

The premature end to the negotiations means the diplomacy between the United States and North Korea that has gone on for most of a year remains stalled, even as experts say North Korea continues to produce fissile material to make nuclear warheads.

It also undermines the image Trump has long cultivated of himself as a tough negotiator who can bring adversaries into a deal.

Trump said that Kim had agreed to take an important step toward dismantling a central part of his nuclear program — the Yongbyon enrichment facility — but that Kim said he would do so only if all sanctions were lifted.

The president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the North would have to dismantle other parts of the program before all sanctions were lifted. They added that the two sides would continue negotiations in other settings and stressed that there were nuclear sites that American officials are aware of but that are unknown to the public.

In response to a question, Trump also acknowledged that his administration was aware of a second enrichment site other than Yongbyon.

Trump had flown across the world to try to work face-to-face with Kim for the second time on the signature diplomatic initiative of his presidency, an effort to reduce what US officials regard as one of the world’s foremost nuclear threats. Experts estimate that the North has 30 to 60 nuclear warheads and possibly a ballistic missile that can hit the continental United States.

If, as Trump said, Kim insisted that the United States lift all economic sanctions in exchange for just the dismantlement of Yongbyon, that was a severe misreading of US strategy. US officials have said that the sanctions are their main leverage with North Korea and that keeping them tight is critical to the goal of full denuclearisation.

There was talk before Thursday that the Americans might allow more economic exchange between South Korea and the North as part of a deal, but that probably would have been as far as alleviation of sanctions would have gone at this point.

The first sign of the collapse of the talks came after morning meetings, when White House officials said a lunchtime meeting and signing ceremony had been cancelled. The White House then issued a statement saying that Trump and Kim had “discussed various ways to advance denuclearisation and economic driven concepts,” and that they had had “very good and constructive meetings,” but had failed to reach an agreement.

“I worry about the consequences,” said Jean H. Lee, a Korea expert at the Wilson Centre, a research organisation in Washington. “Did these two leaders and their teams build up enough goodwill to keep the lines of communication open, or are we headed into another period of stalled negotiations — or worse, tensions — that would give the North Koreans more time and incentive to keep building their weapons program?”

“This result leaves very little room for Kim to save face,” she added.

Officials from both sides had hoped the Hanoi summit meeting would produce more concrete results than the vague communique issued by the two leaders after their first meeting last June, in Singapore.

Back then, they said they would work on four points: improving relations, establishing a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, affirming that Pyongyang would work toward “complete denuclearisation” of the peninsula, and the mutual return of remains from soldiers killed in the Korean War.

Since then, US national security officials have emphasised that denuclearisation is their most important goal, while North Korea has pushed for a lifting of sanctions and improving relations with the United States and South Korea first.

The administration of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea appears to have agreed with Kim that establishing a more stable peace is the first priority, and it has been moving much faster than the United States in opening up diplomatically to the North.

“It is regrettable that they could not reach a complete agreement,” Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for Moon, said after news emerged of the diplomatic breakdown on Thursday. “But it also seems clear that both sides have made more significant progress than ever.”

Trump mentioned potential economic growth in North Korea three times in his brief morning comments, saying that the country would become an “economic powerhouse.”

The message from the morning seemed clear — that integrating North Korea into the global economy would help moderate the country’s behaviour and bring it closer to the US orbit. Trump appeared ready to gamble that as long as Kim and other North Korean officials rid themselves of any intent to harm the United States, they could keep their nuclear capability for a while.

Kim, when asked by an American reporter whether he was ready to denuclearise, said, “If I’m not willing to do that, I wouldn’t be here right now,” to which Trump replied, “That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard.”

Kim also suggested he would accept an US liaison office in his country.