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Why Talks Between The U.S. And North Korea Abruptly Ended


President Trump is returning to Washington empty-handed - no new agreement with North Korea on nuclear weapons. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cut their summit in Vietnam short. The president said he decided to walk away rather than sign a bad deal. But North Korea issued a rebuttal and gave a different account of the day's events. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Hanoi.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a press conference just before he left Vietnam, President Trump told reporters that the North Koreans had made demands that he just couldn't accept.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn't do that. They were willing to de-nuke (ph) a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn't give up all of the sanctions for that.

KUHN: But at a midnight press conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told a different tale. He said that the North Koreans had asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. And in exchange, Ri said...


RI YONG HO: (Through interpreter) We will permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium.

KUHN: Ri added that international inspectors could verify the dismantlement of Yongbyon, the North's main nuclear complex. In addition, he said the North would offer a permanent freeze on nuclear and long-range missile testing.


RI: (Through interpreter) But the United States insisted that we should take one more step beside the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in the Yongbyon area. Therefore, it became crystal clear that the United States was not ready to accept our proposal.

KUHN: Some experts are amazed that issues like these were not addressed or resolved in weeks of working-level talks leading up to the summit. Paik Hak-soon is a North Korea expert and president of the Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank.

PAIK HAK-SOON: We thought that much had been resolved beforehand when they came to the second meeting, but we realize by now that the key issues are very tough issues which have not been resolved significantly.

KUHN: The competing versions of events still leave some things unclear. Ri Yong Ho says North Korea asked for 5 of 11 U.N. sanctions related to the civilian economy lifted. Some experts argue that those are the most important of the sanctions. Another question is what extra step Trump asked for. Trump said he raised some sites that produce nuclear material that Pyongyang has not publicly acknowledged.


TRUMP: And we brought many, many points up that I think they were surprised that we knew.

CHUNG MIN LEE: I think Kim Jong Un Simply could not live with the fact that the Americans had such intrusive intelligence on him, and he was basically caught red-handed.

KUHN: That's Chung Min Lee, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

LEE: And I think that's why he simply did not have the political muscle to go through with a deal with Donald Trump.

KUHN: It wouldn't be the first time such a thing has happened, Lee points out. The U.S. confronted North Korea with intelligence about its secret uranium enrichment program in 2002. Pyongyang responded by walking out on a 1994 denuclearization deal. But Sejong Institute's Paik Hak-soon soon argues that Kim Jong Un is too heavily invested in the current process to walk out on it.

PAIK: He says he's already tied to the promises he made through the heads of state of other countries - to South Korea's Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump of the United States and Xi Jinping of China.

KUHN: But Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho called North Korea's proposals reasonable and an opportunity that the U.S. might not get again. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.