(CNN) – Talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to be cut short Thursday as the White House said a planned lunch and signing ceremony would be changed or eliminated altogether.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the changes signaled for the high-stakes nuclear talks underway here.
Reporters were told around 12:45 p.m. Thursday local time that negotiations were continuing, but that they would conclude in the next 30-45 minutes and the US President would return to his hotel.
That appears to eliminate the planned lunch and joint agreement signing ceremony that had been listed on an earlier schedule.
Earlier in the day, Trump tamped down expectations he will make significant progress with Kim during their nuclear talks in Hanoi on Thursday local time, repeating he’s in no rush to strike a deal even as North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons program.
During an expanded session with aides, the two men discussed the prospect of opening a US office in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. Kim said he would welcome the idea, and Trump deemed it a “good idea.”
Still, signs of concrete progress toward a nuclear agreement were slow to emerge.
In extraordinary back-and-forth exchanges with journalists, Kim insisted he was open to denuclearization, though didn’t say what he believed that meant.
“If I’m not willing to do that I won’t be here right now,” he said through an interpreter.
Trump had previously downplayed what might come out of his Hanoi talks, suggesting instead a long-term agreement was still to come.
“I’ve been saying very much from the beginning that speed is not that important to me,” Trump said at the start of his second summit with Kim. “Speed is not important to me. What is important is that we do the right deal.”
Kim, for his part, also expressed cautious optimism a deal would eventually be struck. But he did not suggest such an accord would come soon.
“It’s too early to say,” he said, in an unprecedented response to a foreign journalist’s shouted question. “From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come out.”
He again responded to journalists later in the day, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
The two leaders went back-and-forth over the prospect of exchanging liaison officers — a low level diplomatic partnership — after the issue was raised by a journalist.
Initially, Kim seemed to reject the question, proposing to Trump that the media be excused from the room. But Trump seemed to goad him to answer, saying it was a good question.
“I would like to hear that answer,” Trump said.
Kim responded through his interpreter, saying it would be something that was “welcome-able.”
Trump expressed a similar sentiment: “I actually think it’s a good idea.”
Kim added it would be better for Trump and him to discuss it together in private.
Trump’s duel objectives
Trump is pursuing two objectives as he sits down once again with the North Korean dictator here on Thursday: draw North Korea closer to the prospect of abandoning its nuclear weapons and regain control of the media narrative.
Neither has proven easy.
As he arrived at the swanky Metropole Hotel on Wednesday to advance his historic direct diplomacy with Kim, Trump was quickly upstaged by the damning congressional testimony of his longtime former attorney and adviser Michael Cohen. By the time Trump finished dinner with Kim, the airwaves were blanketed with coverage of Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee.
A grand agreement on denuclearization might have helped in that effort. But Trump downplayed the prospects of a deal emerging from the Hanoi talks. Instead, he suggested something more vague might result from his second summit with Kim.
“I can’t speak for today but over a little bit longer term … we’re going to have a fantastic success,” Trump said.
He described his dinner an evening earlier as positive, but did not describe in detail any of the negotiations underway.
“A lot of great ideas being thrown about,” Trump said.
Cozy relationship with a brutal dictator
Following an intimate Wednesday evening dinner, the two leaders once again put their chummy personal relationship on display on Thursday. Walking along the flower-lined pool deck at the French-colonial Metropole hotel, Kim and Trump engaged in friendly conversation to give the cameras an opportunity to capture them in a more casual setting.
The images will only serve to fuel criticism that Trump’s cozy diplomacy with Kim glosses over the rampant human rights abuses in North Korea, which include Kim’s brutal assassinations of those who cross him and the imprisonment of thousands in labor camps. Trump has avoided any mention of human rights during his talks with Kim, instead focusing on the prospects for financial investment if Kim agrees to abandon his nuclear weapons.
While Trump continues to insist that there is no rush to make progress, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear weapons program and expanded its nuclear arsenal. In just the past year, North Korea is estimated to have produced enough fissile material for an additional five to seven nuclear weapons, according to Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
That nuclear production is expected to continue so long as Trump does not secure a verifiable freeze in North Korea’s nuclear production — a US objective that so far has remained elusive.
Damning Cohen testimony split-screen
As Trump awoke in Hanoi, the Wednesday evening US prime-time newscasts continued to pick through the unsparing allegations Cohen had leveled against Trump.
During his seven hours of testimony, Cohen accused Trump of being a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.” He claimed that Trump was aware during the 2016 campaign of his longtime political adviser Roger Stone’s communications with WikilLeaks about the release of hacked Democratic emails. And once again — this time before the cameras — he implicated Trump in federal crimes.
Trump seeks to refocus attention on his high-stakes diplomatic gambit with North Korea, even though it’s Cohen’s testimony that will surely be a focus of questioning during a news conference later on Thursday.
The US President is under pressure to demonstrate progress in his efforts to coax Kim into abandoning his nuclear weapons program, but he did little to counter the low expectations about the results of the second summit.
“I thought the first summit was a great success, and I think hopefully this one will be equal or greater,” Trump said during his first Hanoi encounter with Kim, even as he acknowledged that “some people would like to see things go quicker.”
Despite broad pledges to denuclearize, North Korea has not taken any concrete and verifiable steps in the eight months since Trump and Kim first sat down in Singapore. And US officials signaled in the days before this summit that the joint agreement Trump and Kim are set to sign in Hanoi will not represent a dramatic breakthrough, instead aiming to lay yet more groundwork for a path forward. And they worried that Trump might make surprise concessions to Kim in his eagerness to reach a deal.
Those concerns could now be compounded by the focus on Cohen’s testimony and Trump’s eagerness to move past this news cycle.
Trump was clearly distracted by the Cohen testimony on Wednesday, tweeting during a break in meetings to slam his longtime top former aide as a lying, unreliable witness.
“Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!” Trump tweeted, falsely claiming Cohen’s testimony before Congress would help reduce his prison time.
After returning from his dinner with Kim, as Cohen laced into his former boss, Trump tweeted about his “great meeting and dinner with Kim.”
He then retweeted his earlier tweet about Cohen.