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Kim and Trump finally show their hands after nuclear talks in Hanoi

We now know where North Korea and US stand and the gaps that still need to be closed

The Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un may have broken down abruptly and stalled negotiations for the time being, but it has opened a window into the talks that leaves some hope that a compromise can be reached.

Like poker players after a round of betting and bluffing, the US and North Korea (DPRK) ended the Hanoi meeting by showing their hands to the press. The transparency flowed from the top down. Trump went into unusual detail in the version of events he presented in a press conference on Thursday and Kim took questions from foreign reporters for the first time.

A few hours later, at midnight in Hanoi, the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, called a press conference to give Pyongyangs side of the story and in doing so also went into unprecedented detail on North Koreanbargaining positions.

A senior US administration official briefed journalists travelling with its secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in response, revealing yet more details.

It means there is clarity about where each side stands on the nuclear talks and the gap that remains. It is clear the negotiations since the first Trump-Kim summit have focused on the core issues: the extent of Pyongyangs nuclear weapons infrastructure, how much of it Kim is willing to give up and for what degree on sanctions relief.

The ancillary issues, such as security guarantees, confidence-building measures and diplomatic relations were put to one side until the core issues are resolved.

The two sides were very far apart on those core issues before the Hanoi summit, and in more normal times it would have been postponed until the gap could be narrowed. Trump, however, appeared to be confident he could strike a grand bargain through force of personality and the close bond he believes he has with Kim.

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Trump-Kim nuclear talks in Hanoi break down video report

The summit was doomed because those proved to be delusions. Kim arrived with a clear game plan and was not going to be diverted from it under pressure at the last minute.

The accounts of what happened in Hanoi and in the preceding months suggest that while the summit was premature, there is room for further negotiation in search of common ground.

There has so far been no return to the exchanges of threats and insults between the two leaders that produced a serious scare in the autumn of 2017.

Both sides claim the talks remained amicable despite the breakdown in Hanoi, but that does not seem entirely true. If it were, the delegations would not have left a prepared lunch of foie gras, snowfish and candied ginseng uneaten. Besides the free food, the lunch would have provided an opportunity to plan next steps and build the partnership Trump has boasted about so often.

The North Korean deputy foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, hinted at a bitter mood at the end of the Hanoi meeting when she told reporters in the early hours of Friday morning: Chairman Kim got the feeling that he didnt understand the way Americans calculate.

I have a feeling that Chairman Kim may have lost the will to negotiate with Trump, she added.

Publicly, however, both sides have left open the prospect of a resumption of talks on a working level. Both North Korean and US officials sought to spin accounts of Hanoi in their favour, but there is a substantial amount of agreement on the facts.

Ri said Pyongyang was willing to dismantle all of the nuclear material production facilities in the Yongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium in the presence of US experts and a joint work of technicians from both countries.

This proposal was the biggest denuclearisation measure we could take at the present stage when taking into consideration of the current level of confidence between the DPRK and the US, he told reporters.

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Kim Jong-un answers question from foreign journalist for first time video

In return, North Korea wanted the UN sanctions imposed on the country since March 2016 to be lifted. Ri took issue with Trump characterising this as a demand for all sanctions to be lifted, saying it would represent only a partial easing of the stranglehold on the North Korean economy. Officials said they were asking for five of the eleven UN security council resolutions against North Korea to be reversed.

A senior US official did not take issue with this account in a briefing with reporters, but pointed out that the UN resolutions imposed after March 2016 represented the bulk of sanctions on the North Korean economy in terms of dollar value.

You go back and look [at] the UN security council resolutions, youll see thats where all the value of the sanctions were imposed, the official said. So the economic benefit of this, the pressure campaign that sanctions represent, would have been eviscerated with the lifting of sanctions.

The same official also said Yongbyon was a sprawling three-square mile site with more than 300 different separate facilities located on it, all of which are dedicated to supporting the nuclear weapons programme in North Korea.

He said the US wanted more of the complex to be disabled. He refused to give further details, but it is believed that Yongbyon also produces tritium, used in making thermonuclear hydrogen bombs.

Trump also said on Thursday that the US wanted covert facilities outside Yongbyon put on the table, including at least one secret uranium enrichment plant.

The US argument was that North Korea was asking for the removal of the vast bulk of its sanctions burden, but offering a much smaller proportion of its nuclear weapons programme in return.

The senior official also confirmed that the US had been seeking a clear definition of what denuclearisation meant, to help provide a framework for further negotiations, but the North Korean side did not agree, leaving it out of their counter-proposal.

It is clear from the rival briefings that while both sides were searching for agreement on an interim step on the road to complete disarmament and complete sanctions relief, the timing of the summit has disrupted rather than accelerated progress.

The US official briefing reporters after Hanoi seemed to cast new light on US red lines, suggesting the summit broke down because the North Koreans wanted to retain infrastructure that would allow them to continue to produce fissile material and carry on adding to their existing arsenal.

The dilemma that we were confronted with is the North Koreans at this point are unwilling to impose a complete freeze on their weapons of mass destruction programmes, the official said.

The unspoken implication was that the US could be ready to accept an interim solution that froze that arsenal by closing all facilities producing fissile material, in return for a partial, but perhaps substantial, lifting of sanctions.

That still leaves a gap because North Korea has yet to acknowledge the existence of plants producing fissile material outside Yongbyon, but it does offer at least the possibility of a deal, short of complete unilateral disarmament by Pyongyang.

We didnt get a deal because the deal wasnt there to be had, the official said. But we are prepared to continue talking.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/01/kim-jong-un-and-donald-trump-finally-show-their-hands-after-hanoi-summit-nuclear-talks

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