US President Donald Trump said on Thursday he doesn’t think North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was involved in the mistreatment of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died after being detained in the isolated country. (Feb. 28)
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, 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 top advisers for persuading the president to walk away.
Lawmakers in both parties echoed that argument, even as they blasted Trump’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 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.
Lawmakers in both parties praised Trump’s decision.
“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.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, gave Trump “credit” for not accepting a weak agreement. In an interview with CNN, Menendez 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.
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 stopped 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.”
Amid the praise for Trump’s move to cut off 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.
Contributing: John Fritze
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