North Korea summit: Why Trump's failure to reach a deal is being lauded in Washington

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – At least President Donald Trump did not get rolled.

The collapse of Trump’s negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un sparked a mixture of relief that the president didn’t agree to a flimsy deal – and concern about what’s next – among lawmakers and national security experts who watched the suspenseful summit unfold in Vietnam.

“There’s no denying this summit was a failure. We got zero progress,” said Victor Cha, who served as a national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. But, he said, “I also think it’s a good thing the president didn’t take a bad deal.”

Cha and others said they had been deeply concerned that Trump – desperate for a foreign policy success as he faces growing domestic turmoil – would fall for half-measures or false promises from the North Koreans.

There was angst that “the president would go off in dangerous directions” and make an impulsive decision in the high-stakes negotiations, said Michael Green, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Green said he “took some reassurance” from Trump’s decision, although he credited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other White House advisers for persuading the president to walk away.

Lawmakers in both parties also praised Trump's decision to end the talks, even as they blasted the president's remarks about North Korea's treatment of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia college student who suffered a severe brain injury after being detained by the North Korean government. Warmbier, a native of Ohio, died a few days after his release, and his parents believe he was tortured.

Trump said Kim "didn't know" about Warmbier's case or treatment while he was imprisoned in the North Korean dictator's country, "I don't believe he knew about it," Trump said. "He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word."

Trump abruptly ended the Vietnam summit on Thursday, canceling a signing ceremony with Kim and conceding the two leaders could not reach an agreement that would lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

"Sometimes you have to walk," Trump said at a news conference in Hanoi. He said the talks broke down over the North Korean dictator’s insistence that the U.S. move to lift crippling economic sanctions on the North Korean regime. In exchange, Kim had offered to dismantle North Korea’s main nuclear facility, Yongbyon, but would not commit to giving up its stockpile of nuclear bombs, its missiles or its other capabilities.

“That facility, while very big, it wasn’t enough to do what we were doing,” Trump told reporters Thursday.

North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contradicted Trump's characterization of the talks. At a rare public statement before the international media, Ri said North Korea had offered to permanently dismantle all its nuclear material production, including plutonium and uranium, around the Yongbyan facility under observation by U.S. experts. And Kim asked only for partial relief from the multilateral sanctions, he said.  

“It became crystal-clear that the United States was not ready to accept our proposal,” Ri said through a translator. “Our proposal will never be changed, even though the United States proposes negotiation again in the future.”

President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim

No matter what the reason for the impasse, American lawmakers in both parties seemed thankful that the summit didn't result in a slap-dash agreement. 

“The president is to be commended for walking away when it became clear insufficient progress had been made on denuclearization,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Thursday.

“Kim Jong Un now has a long train ride home, and he will have time to reflect on the future that is still within North Korea’s grasp,” McConnell said. “But the president has demonstrated that such a future must be accompanied by real denuclearization.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said North Korea clearly was not ready to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization, and the White House "rushed prematurely" into another summit.

"My chief concern leading up to this meeting was that the Trump administration would ease sanctions in response to some inadequate, superficial commitment from Pyongyang," Engel said. "I’m relieved that there were no major announcements on sanctions relief, given there were no major commitments by North Korea about its nuclear program."

Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the president’s failure to reach an agreement in Hanoi was of his own making – and showed the “limits of reality TV diplomacy.”

“It’s better not to go ahead and enter into a bad deal, but you don’t put yourself in this position in the first place,” Menendez said in an interview with CNN.

He and others noted that North Korea continued to develop its nuclear arsenal even as Kim's regime engaged in high-level diplomacy with the Trump administration on denuclearization. Experts estimate that North Korea has 30 to 60 nuclear bombs, along with a cache of missiles.

The North Koreans have stopped nuclear and missile tests, and the U.S. has suspended joint military exercises with South Korea. The halt in military exercises will lead to a degradation of the Pentagon’s readiness, Green said.

“We are now stuck with a freeze for freeze,” Green said. “In some ways, we’re worse off than we were before.”

While Trump won praise for cutting short the nuclear talks, there was bipartisan blowback over his acceptance of Kim's denial that he knew about Warmbier.

Speaking on CNN, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum called Trump's comments about Warmbier "reprehensible." Menendez said the remarks caused "enormous damage" and were part of a broader failure of the president to confront Kim over North Korea's human-rights record. 

"North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier, and the president of the United States has a responsibility to make sure they face the consequences. Anything short of that is unacceptable,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “The president of the United States is sending a message to dictators around the world that he believes autocrats when they lie or when they cover up, or when they justify policies that result in the deaths of human beings.”

Contributing: John Fritze

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: North Korea summit: Why Trump's failure to reach a deal is being lauded in Washington