Fact check: Trump says North Korea summit 'productive.' Was it?
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump walked away from a summit with North Korea on Thursday saying his administration was "positioned to do something very special" on denuclearization. Experts had their doubts.
Trump's own Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo even acknowledged the lack of progress with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un: "I wished we could have gotten a little bit further."
Here’s a look at how Trump framed the summit, and what outside experts saw:
Trump calls talks 'productive'
Trump argued that talks with Kim were "productive," even as he said an impasse between the two was the reason the summit was cut short.
Trump did not point to specific issues on which the summit yielded progress though he said his personal relationship with the North Korean leader remained warm.
Many U.S. analysts and former officials have expressed skepticism about Trump's comments touting progress up to and during the summit.
"The Trump administration has overhyped its claims of success with North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former CIA deputy division chief.
At a news conference, Trump said the United States would maintain sanctions on North Korea, and he said that he expected Pyongyang would continue to suspend nuclear and missile tests. That's the same situation that existed when the summit began.
Trump said he did not set a timetable with Kim for a third summit.
Kim denies knowledge of Warmbier
Trump said he took Kim at his word when the North Korean leader claimed he didn’t know about the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old Ohio man who was imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year and later died of his injuries.
"I don't believe he knew about it," Trump said Thursday of Kim. "He tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word."
Trump said Kim "felt badly about" Warmbier's death.
"Big country; lot of people," Trump said. "And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people."
Kim, who is believed to have executed members of his own family whom he perceived as threats, is widely seen as ruling North Korea with an iron fist. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch calls North Korea "one of the world’s most repressive countries."
Warmbier was arrested and accused of committing a "hostile act" as he tried to leave North Korea in 2016. He was sent home to his parents in June 2017 in a coma with a massive brain injury and died days later.
A federal judge last year ordered North Korea to pay his parents more than $501 million for fatally mistreating him and causing his death.
David Hawk, a North Korea expert who testified for the Warmbier family at that trial, said North Korea “almost certainly tortured Otto.” Doctors at the University of Cincinnati who examined Warmbier when he returned to the U.S. found no broken bones. But U.S. District Court Beryl Howell embraced the conclusion of U.S. officials and outside experts that North Korean officials tortured Warmbier to elicit a confession.
That "confession" was broadcast by state media months after his arrest.
North Korean threat over?
Trump had barely returned from his first meeting with Kim in June when he declared the challenge posed by North Korea had been solved, setting off alarms with allies.
"Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office," the president tweeted. "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea."
Trump's assertion has been blasted by Democrats and Republicans as flatly wrong. North Korea has not given up any of its nuclear weapons. Kim has not disclosed the extent of his nuclear program – a first step toward setting the terms of denuclearization.
The president did not indicate that any progress has been made on that front in Vietnam.
Kim has at least 10 to 20 nuclear weapons and the ability to build dozens more, according to the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan think tank. In late 2017, North Korea tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which theoretically could reach anywhere in the United States.
"There is still a North Korean nuclear weapons threat," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "The job of reducing and eliminating the North Korean nuclear and missile threat is not nearly done."
Underscoring the challenge for Trump: There’s little indication Kim wants to relinquish the weapons he has now. Intelligence officials within Trump's own administration said this year that Kim views his nuclear arsenal as crucial to survival.
"We continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key U.S. and international concessions," Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, told lawmakers in January.
Suspended missile testing
Defending his approach with North Korea, Trump has repeatedly pointed out that Kim is no longer testing missiles. Speaking in Vietnam on Thursday, Trump said he expected that pause would continue despite the apparent break down in talks.
"He’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear," Trump said.
North Korea last tested a missile in late 2017. But Pyongyang has put such tests on pause before, only to resume them when negotiations break down.
Kim declared in April – two months before he met with Trump in Singapore for their first summit – that he would suspend nuclear and missile tests. That was a departure from a series of high-profile tests in the months before.
North Korea launched a missile in November 2017 that climbed 2,800 miles – roughly 11 times higher than the International Space Station – and that experts said could theoretically hit Washington, D.C. Months earlier, North Korea said it tested a hydrogen bomb at its Punggye-ri facility about 350 miles northeast of Pyongyang, an event that registered on seismographs around the planet.
Kim has explained the latest pause in testing by saying his country's scientists don't need to fire more rockets at the moment.
“It’s certainly better that the North Koreans have paused their nuclear and ballistic missile testing, but that may only be because North Korea now wants to concentrate on building and producing more long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons,” Kimball said.
Almost at war?
At campaign rallies and high-profile speeches, Trump has sought to play up the current U.S. relationship with North Korea by painting a dark picture of where things stood before he became president. To do so, he has claimed President Barack Obama was about to launch a war with North Korea, an assertion that independent experts dispute.
"If I had not been elected," Trump said during his State of the Union address this month, "we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea."
Disputed history:Ex-Obama aides dismiss Trump's claim he almost inherited a war
Obama, like his predecessors, looked into the potential fallout from a U.S. strike on North Korea. Obama ultimately decided a military move could lead to a nuclear exchange, killing millions, and he rejected the idea as "unthinkable," according to Bob Woodward’s 2018 book "Fear: Trump in the White House."
Obama embraced a strategy known as “strategic patience” – the idea of keeping North Korea at arm’s length and hoping international sanctions might weaken Kim’s grip on power. Some criticized the approach policy as doing too little to address the problem, but it was the opposite of preparing for a war.
It was Trump who, in mid-2017, began rattling the saber with Kim, threatening to bring “fire and fury” on North Korea and touting his bigger “button,” a reference to the United States’ larger nuclear arsenal. Kim responded by at one point calling Trump a "dotard."
“He’s hyping what actually happened,” said Harry Kazianis with the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “I think almost every U.S. administration has weighed military strikes.”
Give them nothing
Trump has tried to rebuff his critics by saying he has given North Korea nothing in exchange for better relations. But foreign policy experts say the U.S. has delivered to Kim a degree of legitimacy through the joint summits. And they point to the fact that the U.S. military suspended joint training operations with South Korea last year.
The military exercises, which often involve ships, aircraft and thousands of troops, have been conducted for decades on the Korean Peninsula – sometimes in response to North Korean rhetoric or actions. In 2016, B-52 and B-1B bombers flew in the region after North Korean nuclear tests, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Some training has continued, but the U.S. has canceled a series of large-scale exercises since the first summit.
"I gave that up," Trump said in Vietnam in Thursday.
Pentagon officials say the exercises are crucial to maintain the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces, but the drills have been suspended before – and quickly restarted. The Clinton administration paused the training between 1994 and 1996 in an effort to pave the way for diplomatic talks with North Korea.
When those efforts failed, the exercises resumed.
Trump has described the move as a "cost-saving measure," and he said in Vietnam that each exercise cost $100 million. Trump fell back on another argument, suggesting Thursday that South Korea did not reimburse the United States for its military costs. In fact, South Korea spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year reimbursing Washington for the presence of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula.
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