RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Donald Trump has left Vietnam without a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two had initially scheduled a ceremony for earlier today to sign an agreement on steps toward denuclearizing North Korea, but they canceled that signing ceremony at the last minute because there was nothing to sign. Instead, there was a press conference in which President Trump said he had to walk away from the negotiations.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a really, I think, a very productive time. We thought, and I thought and Secretary Pompeo felt that it wasn't a good thing to be signing anything.
MARTIN: So now what? That's a big question. Let's talk it through with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, who covers nuclear security. Thanks to both of you for being here.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So Scott, I'm going to start with you. What was North Korea offering, if anything, that didn't work for President Trump?
HORSLEY: Well, the president says Kim Jong Un was offering only limited curbs on Pyongyang's outlawed nuclear program, and in exchange, Kim wanted the international economic sanctions on North Korea lifted completely. That was not a good enough bargain for the president, and that's why Trump says he walked away.
MARTIN: So they didn't know that going in? I mean, they didn't have any suspicion that that's what Kim Jong Un was going to ask for, lifting all the economic sanctions?
HORSLEY: Well, there had been kind of mixed signals as far as how far Kim was willing to go. Early on, after the last summit eight months ago, there had been a lot of foot dragging by North Korea. But the Trump administration, at least, factions within the Trump administration, thought they had seen some encouraging signs more recently. And, you know, the president stressed that these talks ended on an amicable note. So he's couching this as not so much a breakdown in negotiations but more of just a pause to regroup. The end of these talks will certainly be a relief for those who are nervous that maybe Trump was going to give away too much just for the sake of a handshake agreement.
HORSLEY: And the president stressed that he and Kim still have, you know, a good relationship, and he says there's still room to give those lower-level negotiators more time.
MARTIN: Geoff, how did you read what happened?
BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, I was, I guess, slightly surprised in the sense that these two leaders from North Korea and the U.S. come together and you expect that there is going to be a deal. There was a lot of anticipation. On the other hand, the two sides going into these talks seemed really far apart. As you said, North Korea has been pushing for the lifting of all sanctions, and Trump has been pushing for the complete denuclearization of North Korea. And neither side wants to do the - sort of go to those extremes.
MARTIN: Right. So is no deal then better than a bad deal then? Geoff?
BRUMFIEL: I mean, there are experts who will say that they would rather see Trump walk away and, you know, not give a deal. When North Korea is only offering part or a portion of its nuclear program, they don't want to see Trump give away sort of the entire candy shop. On the other hand, you know, let's remember where we were before these talks started. There was fire and fury. There were missile tests and nuclear tests.
Now, North Korea right now, Trump says that Kim has reassured him, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, has reassured him there's not going to be any further testing while they continue to talk. But Kim is going home without a deal. He's going home by train, (laughter), for two days, you know, and he's going to arrive in his country where pictures of him meeting with Trump are all over the front pages. You've got to wonder...
MARTIN: That's good for him, though, isn't it?
BRUMFIEL: Not without some sort of deal, sort of sanctions lifting or some sort of economic benefit. I think there's an argument that he's going home, you know, with his tail between its legs. I mean, it depends how he sees it...
BRUMFIEL: ...Is what I'm trying to say.
MARTIN: That's interesting because if the first summit in Singapore was all about the moment, and they got cred - both leaders.
MARTIN: They got the benefit of the doubt for making that happen. This is going to be seen, you're saying, as more of a failure for both sides because they couldn't move it beyond just the surface-level aesthetics?
BRUMFIEL: I think that is the concern. And I mean, in particular with North Korea, given the way things have turned out after talks have broken down in the past, they kind of go back to their old ways. And so I think that is the thing to worry about.
MARTIN: Scott, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still keeps insisting, as you alluded to earlier, that this was worthwhile, that it was productive in some ways.
HORSLEY: That's right. And the president has said - he said going into these talks that he was willing to be very patient with North Korea so long as the moratorium on missile and nuclear tests continued. There've been no tests since 2017, and the Trump administration counts that as a success. Now, that doesn't mean North Korea hasn't continued to add to its stockpile of, you know, nuclear weapons-grade material. So that is a concern. For his part, the president offered assurances that he has no interest in restarting joint military exercises with South Korea, something he ended after the first summit in Singapore.
So we're kind of in a holding pattern. The challenge there is the longer that holding pattern goes on, the harder it is to sort of maintain the international sanctions regime. And already we're seeing signs that North Korea has kind of learned to live with those economic sanctions. The Wall Street Journal was reporting earlier this week that, you know, gas prices in Pyongyang have come down rather dramatically, rice prices have been stable. So they can probably drag this out for a long time, and the longer it goes on, the more North Korea just sort of gets recognized as a de facto nuclear state.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. We also had NPR's science correspondent, nuclear security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks to you both.
BRUMFIEL: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.