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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's Kim mulls next move under cloud of 'disappointment'

Failed summit with Trump puts Pyongyang's whole strategy in jeopardy

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Hanoi on Feb. 28, before ending their summit early without a deal.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- North Korea's reaction to the collapse of its denuclearization talks with the U.S. in Hanoi betrays bewilderment and uncertainty about the way forward. On one hand, representatives of Kim Jong Un's regime have been talking tough. On the other, Kim's media mouthpiece has expressed his commitment to keep working with the Donald Trump administration.

This much is certain: The young dictator has a dicey decision to make.

Both President Trump and Kim showed changes of heart from the outset of their Feb. 27-28 summit. Trump smiled before photographers but otherwise looked sulky. Kim appeared tight, with beads of sweat on his forehead and cheeks. When they met in Singapore eight months earlier, they had been all smiles and full of praise for each other, though Trump did make a foreboding comment in a TV interview, saying, "Maybe in a year ... I'll say I made a mistake."

After the Hanoi summit ended early without a highly anticipated agreement, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui met reporters in the Vietnamese capital in the wee hours of March 1. Choe said the U.S. "is missing an opportunity" and suggested Kim may have lost interest in striking a deal for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In an interview with South Korean news outlets that day, Choe issued another veiled warning, referring to Kim's New Year's message in which he said he would have to pursue a "new path" if the U.S. maintained sanctions against his country.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui speaks to reporters in the early hours of March 1, after Kim's summit with Trump.   © Reuters

Yet, North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency said the same day that Pyongyang would closely cooperate with the U.S. and continue bilateral dialogue in a constructive manner.

Since then, there have been fresh signs the North is looking to go back on the offensive against the U.S., but Kim's position has also grown more awkward.

Reports that North Korea is now rebuilding a missile testing site it had been dismantling in northwestern Tongchang-ri prompted Trump to say on March 6, "I would be very, very disappointed in Chairman Kim" if the intelligence turned out to be true.

For Trump, who had consistently championed Kim of late, this marked a noticeable change in tone. His use of the word "disappointed" likely rattled Pyongyang.

Choe doubled down on March 15 while addressing foreign correspondents in the North Korean capital. She repeatedly stressed that the North refuses to accept the U.S. demand that it abandon its nuclear arsenal and called for a halt to the negotiations. She went so far as to say that Kim would soon announce whether the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests would continue.

Choe was careful to stress that personal relations between Kim and Trump remain amicable. While the regime has lashed out at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, it has avoided attacking Trump. Pyongyang is clearly eager to maintain its long-sought access to the leader of the world's most powerful country.

But the fact remains -- if the North resumes weapons tests, it would be crossing a line set by the American president. Trump told Kim that the speed of denuclearization was "not important." The important thing was that there is no testing.

Trump, however, is not the only one Kim risks disappointing.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service submitted a report to the National Assembly on March 5, saying the summit outcome had spawned a sense of disappointment in North Korea because expectations had been so high.

Word is reportedly circulating among North Korean citizens that the Trump administration will toughen sanctions due to the breakup of the talks.

The North Korean leadership had promoted the summit with extensive media coverage, starting with Kim's departure from Pyongyang. Rapprochement between North Korea and the U.S. was presented as the young leader's achievement. At the start of the summit, Kim had told reporters he had "a feeling that good results will come out."

Citizens in Pyongyang read a newspaper report on leader Kim Jong Un's arrival in Hanoi on Feb. 27.   © Kyodo

In all this, average North Koreans saw a glimmer of hope, however vague, that their lives would improve.

On a visit to Pyongyang in 2016, this writer heard citizens longing for better conditions by any means, even a war with the U.S. In a documentary on the daily lives of North Koreans, shown in Japan in 2018, an official said the wish for reunification of the two Koreas was mainly rooted in the desire to improve livelihoods. These days, many are keeping the faith in the regime based on the promise of rapprochement with the U.S.

This likely explains why, upon Kim's return to Pyongyang on March 5, the KCNA reported that the summit had ended successfully. The North may be hoping to soften the U.S. stance by threatening to end the negotiations, but it also wants to keep up appearances to check domestic discontent.

In North Korea, of course, a diplomatic failure by the "highest dignity" is considered impossible.

There is little doubt that Kim was more disappointed in the result of the summit than anyone. The outcome has shaken North Korea's strategy of seeking the removal of sanctions in exchange for incremental denuclearization proposals, while continuing to hone its warhead and missile technologies.

The North's leadership appears to be seeking to drive a wedge between Trump and his hard-line aides, to reopen the way for deal-making with the president. But the stakes will be high when Pyongyang makes its next move.

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