HANOI, Vietnam – President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un plan to end talks earlier than scheduled Thursday and canceled a planned signing ceremony for some kind of nuclear deal.
The White House did not provide an explanation, but said Trump would move up a news conference by two hours, to at 2 a.m. Eastern time.
After a day of summit ceremony in Vietnam and political turmoil in the United States, Trump and Kim had tempered expectations about the prospects of a meaningful nuclear deal.
“We’ll ultimately have a deal,” Trump told reporters early Thursday, but that “doesn’t mean we’re doing it in one day, in one meeting.”
The president spoke guardedly during a daylong series of meetings with Kim that came just hours after his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, implicated him in criminal wrongdoing back in the U.S.
As he did before the summit, Trump said he was in no “rush” to demand immediate denuclearization, so long as North Korea continues not to test nuclear weapons and missiles. “Speed is not that important to me,” Trump said. “I appreciate no testing.”
Kim, taking the unprecedented step of answering a western reporter’s question, said “it’s too early to say” whether there will be a deal, but “I would not say I’m pessimistic.”
Later, again responding to an American reporter, Kim said he is willing to denuclearize his nation’s weapons systems. “If I’m not willing to do that,” he said, “I won’t be here right now.”
“That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard,” Trump chimed in.
While Trump seeks specific details from Kim about eliminating his nuclear weapons programs, Kim wants the United States to lift economic sanctions.
The two sides are also discussing a declaration to formally end the nearly seven-decade-old Korean War, which is technically still in place because it ended only with an armistice in 1953.
Another topic of conversation between the United States and North Korea: establishing “liaison offices” in each other’s capital cities of Washington and Pyongyang. These would not be embassies, but offices the governments could use to communicate with each other.
Kim said that idea is “welcomeable,” while Trump called it a “good idea.”
Trump and Kim are scheduled for a private one-on-one conversation, a conference with aides, and a “working lunch.”
The schedule then calls for a “Joint Agreement Signing Ceremony,” but the governments have yet to produce a specific document – and the details are everything if the agreement is to be effective, national security analysts said.
“The two sides need to reach a common understanding of what their desired endgame for ‘denuclearization’ actually is,” said Kristine Lee, a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
Trump plans to cap the summit with a news conference before boarding Air Force One for the trip back to the United States.
Reporters are likely to question Trump at length about Cohen’s testimony against him.
The former attorney and fixer described his ex-client Trump as a “con man,” a “cheat” and a “racist.” Cohen implicated Trump in potential crimes involving tax returns, campaign finance, and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election by hacking emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Trump tweeted that Cohen is a liar looking to protect himself from legal jeopardy.
The Cohen testimony before Congress has to a large extent overshadowed the Trump-Kim summit, the latest act in a relationship that has seen a remarkable turnaround.
Not long ago, each leader threatened to destroy the other’s country.
Trump, who once mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” said they now have a great relationship. He has described the North Korean dictator as a “friend” with whom he as a “warm” and “special” relationship.
During Thursday’s summit, Trump and Kim could be seen strolling the grounds of the meeting site at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, an art nouveau classic that opened in 1901 when the French ran Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Metropole guests used the air raid shelter beneath the building when U.S. bombers attacked.
At one point, Kim told reporters he knows that people have a “skeptical view” of his talks with with Trump – and that following them is “like watching a scene from a fantasy movie.”
The friendly tone in Vietnam – Trump and Kim could be seen chatting amiably during their dinner – drew catcalls from Trump’s critics back in the United States who point out that the North Korean leader has starved his people, imprisoned his political opponents, and killed potential challengers.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump seems to be “touting his ‘warm’ relationship with Chairman Kim as an accomplishment in and of itself.”
Schumer also said he fears Trump may give away too much to strike a deal – any deal – that he can use to “knock Michael Cohen’s hearing from the front page.”
Analysts said that, for any agreement to be meaningful, North Korea must be specific in terms of identifying their nuclear weapons facilities, and a timeline for deconstructing them. It would ideally call for a timeline and verification by outside inspectors.
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