HANOI — President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dove into the details of nuclear negotiations Thursday against a backdrop of swirling questions about what Kim was willing to give up and what Trump may demand in the face of rising domestic turmoil. Tempering expectations, Trump opened by declaring he was in “no rush. We just want to do the right deal.”
The two men continued offering hopeful words as talks began anew at their second summit on curbing Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, a problem that has bedeviled generations of leaders. In a sharp break from his rhetoric a year ago, when he painted the threat from Pyongyang as so grave that “fire and fury” may need to be rained down on North Korea, Trump made clear he was willing to accept a slower timetable for denuclearization.
“Speed is not important,” Trump said. “What’s important is that we do the right deal.”
Kim, who answered a question from a Western journalist for perhaps the first time, said “I believe by intuition that good results will be produced.”
Trump, who made little mention of denuclearization in his opening remarks, ramped down expectations further, saying “I can’t speak necessarily for today but I can say that this … a little bit longer term and over a period of time I know we’re going to have a fantastic success with respect to Chairman Kim and North Korea.”
Accompanied only by translators, the unlikely pair – a 72-year-old billionaire and a 35-year-old reclusive autocrat – displayed a familiarity with one another as they began the day’s negotiations. After a 40-minute private meeting, the leaders went for a stroll on the Hotel Metropole’s lush grounds, chatting as they walked by a swimming pool before being joined by aides to continue talks.
“The relationship is just very strong and when you have a good relationship a lot of good things happen,” said Trump. He added that “a lot of great ideas were being thrown about” at their opulent dinner the night before. He offered no specifics.
“I believe that starting from yesterday, the whole world is looking at this spot right now,” Kim said via his translator. “I’m sure that all of them will be watching the moment that we are sitting together side by side as if they are watching a fantasy movie.”
Possible outcomes could include a peace declaration for the Korean War that the North could use to eventually push for the reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, or sanctions relief that could allow Pyongyang to pursue lucrative economic projects with the South.
Skeptics say such agreements would leave in place a significant portion of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles while robbing the United States of its negotiating leverage going forward. Asked if this summit would yield a political declaration to end the Korean War, Trump told reporters on Wednesday: “We’ll see.”
The president’s schedule Thursday promised a “joint agreement signing ceremony” after the meeting. But as has happened before for Trump, the effort to achieve a grand foreign policy achievement unfolded against a backdrop of tumult and investigations at home.
Hours before he sat down again with Kim, Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, delivered explosive congressional testimony claiming the president is a “conman” who lied about his business interests with Russia.
The turmoil in Washington has escalated concerns that Trump, eager for an agreement, would give Kim too much and get too little in return. The leaders’ first meeting in June was heavy with historic pageantry but light on any enforceable agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. Still, both offered optimistic words before Wednesday’s dinner.
Trump, unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, tweeted that Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.” Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for lying to Congress.
Some of Trump’s previous overseas trips have also been marred by developments at home, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments last July of Russian intelligence officers who interfered on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election, charges that were filed days before the president and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki.
Kim, meanwhile, has emerged with confidence on the world stage over the last year, repeatedly stepping out diplomatically with South Korean, Chinese and U.S. leaders.
But many experts worry that the other, darker side of Kim’s leadership is being brushed aside in the rush to address the North’s nuclear weapons program: the charges of massive human rights abuses; the prison camps filled with dissidents; a near complete absence of media, religious and speech freedoms; the famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands; and the executions of a slew of government and military officials, including his uncle and the alleged assassination order of his half-brother in a Malaysian airport.
North Korea is a fiercely proud nation that has built a nuclear program despite decades of some of the world’s harshest sanctions, but extreme poverty and political repression has caused tens of thousands to flee, mostly to South Korea.
After their first summit, where Trump and Kim signed a joint statement agreeing to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the president prematurely declared victory, tweeting that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” The facts did not support that claim.
North Korea has spent decades, at great economic sacrifice, building its nuclear program, and there are doubts that it will give away that program without getting something substantial from the U.S.
The Korean conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, essentially a cease-fire signed by North Korea, China and the 17-nation, U.S.-led United Nations Command. A peace declaration would amount to a political statement, ostensibly teeing up talks for a formal peace treaty that would involve other nations.
North and South Korea also want U.S. sanctions dialed back so they can resurrect two major symbols of rapprochement that provided USD$150 million a year to the impoverished North by some estimates: a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong and South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort.
Story: Deb Riechmann, Jonathan Lemire, Foster Klug