Kim Jong-un. Picture: REUTERS/KCNA
Kim Jong-un. Picture: REUTERS/KCNA

Hanoi — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will have a long train ride home through China to think about what went wrong in his second summit with US President Donald Trump and how to keep it from reversing his gains of the past year.

The Trump’s shock decision to walk away from nuclear talks on Thursday after hours of meetings in Vietnam raises new questions about Kim’s strategy for relieving the international sanctions squeezing his economy. The move potentially increases internal pressure on him to demonstrate he didn’t make a mistake by sitting down with the enemy.

“Kim also invested a lot in the summit,” says Shin Beomchul, director at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ centre for security and unification. “Kim’s domestic political risk is also high.”

The summit’s collapse reinforced the fundamental choice facing North Korea: negotiate with the US or force another nuclear crisis to improve its bargaining position. While it’s hard to know which path Kim will choose, a hard-line approach risks plunging him back into the diplomatic isolation he experienced before an unprecedented year of summits and red-carpet receptions.

Kim’s effort at damage control was apparent in a state-media summary early on Friday that mentioned none of the acrimony and committed him to another meeting with Trump. The Korean Central News Agency report reaffirmed the leaders’ “common understanding” to maintain efforts to “defuse tensions and preserve peace”, supporting Trump’s claim that Kim pledged not to resume weapons tests.

Hours earlier, however, top North Korean diplomats painted a bleaker picture for a foreign audience in a rare late-night news conference in Hanoi. Vice-foreign minister Choe Son Hui told reporters that the US is “missing an opportunity that comes once in a thousand years” and warned that Kim may have “lost the will” to negotiate.

A friend in Xi

Kim was scheduled to meet Vietnamese officials on Friday before leaving on Saturday to retrace his train route home via China. That would have presented an opportunity to confer face-to-face in Beijing with his most important benefactor: Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The summits have played well at home for Kim, with his state media trumpeting him as being on equal footing with the leader of the world’s richest country

China renewed a call for the UN to relax some sanctions on North Korea, with foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang telling a news briefing in Beijing that it may help persuade Pyongyang to denuclearizse. Lu had no comment on whether Kim would visit Beijing on his way home.

Trump himself held out the prospect for another summit, but cautioned that “it may not be for a long time”. For the US, a delay risks giving Kim more space to develop his weapons programme and solidify his status as a nuclear power.

Still, Kim faces his own time pressure to escape a US-led campaign that has helped push his already impoverished country into its deepest recession in two decades, according to the South Korean central bank. North Korean diplomats say talks broke down after the US refused to support lifting sanctions imposed since 2016 in exchange for dismantling its aging Yongbyon nuclear complex.

That demand appears to cover five rounds of UN Security Council measures approved since North Korea’s fifth nuclear bomb test in September 2016. Those penalties, which would require US support to undo, include everything from restrictions on North Korea’s oil imports to a ban on its export of iron and coal.

But the summits have played well at home for Kim, with his state media trumpeting him as being on equal footing with the leader of the world’s richest country.

Although the inner workings of North Korean politics are shrouded in secrecy, continued hardship could bolster those who favour a more confrontational approach toward the US. Kim exiled, imprisoned or executed 50 to 70 members of the country’s political elite last year, including opponents of engagement with the US, according to a report published last week by the North Korea Strategy Centre, a Seoul-based research institution founded by a former defector.

“One option could be for Kim to shift responsibility onto Trump or US imperialists,” says Soo Kim ,a former Korea analyst who specialised in North Korean state media at the Central Intelligence Agency. “The North Koreans are also great at the blame game.”

‘Eyes wide open’

North Korean statements on Friday stopped short of criticising Trump, suggesting that Kim wants to preserve, at least for now, the personal rapport both leaders have credited with underpinning the talks. The push-back could still focus on other senior US officials at the negotiating table, including secretary of state Michael Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who have previously been the targets of North Korean criticism.

Another option for Kim is to appeal to his relationships with China and South Korea, which have improved greatly since Trump agreed to meet with Kim and end his diplomatic isolation. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked much of his administration on improving ties between the arch-rivals, and needs US-North Korean talks to work out so he can host Kim on an unprecedented visit to Seoul.

Similarly, Xi — then in the midst of an escalating trade war with Trump — told Kim last year that China had made a “strategic choice” to mend ties with North Korea. Senior North Korean diplomats went to Beijing for talks in a trip that coincided with the summit in Hanoi.

“Kim will have to recalibrate his negotiating tactics because this administration is going in with eyes wide open,” says David Kim, a former state department official who’s now a research analyst at the Stimson Centre in the US. “Kim may now try to visit Xi again to signal that he has more options, but he’s met his match in Trump, I’d say.”

• With Jihye Lee and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen

Bloomberg