Written by Choe Sang-hun and Motoko Rich
The abrupt breakdown of summit talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has confounded America’s two largest allies in Asia, but for different reasons.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in had been poised to ramp up economic ties with the North if a sanctions-lifting deal had been brokered in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.
In Japan, on the other hand, there was relief on Friday, a day after the talks broke down. Tokyo had feared an agreement between Washington and Pyongyang could have left Japan vulnerable to missile attacks by North Korea.
Both Japan and South Korea have now been left to contemplate the fallout from the failed talks, which left North Korea in possession of nuclear weapons. The biggest risk to the region is a resumption by Kim of nuclear and missile tests to reassert his leverage.
Losing face might prove a blow for Kim, who cultivates the image of a peerless leader in his totalitarian homeland.
Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, the South Korean capital, said Trump might be content with a freeze on North Korean weapons tests. “But I wonder how long the moratorium will last,” he added.
As Trump left Hanoi aboard Air Force One on Thursday, the path forward was unclear.
At a news conference Thursday, Trump said that his relationship with Kim remained “very friendly” and that he intended to continue negotiations at a measured pace. But during a surprise late-night news conference in Hanoi, Choe Son-hui, a vice foreign minister of North Korea, warned that Kim had “lost some of his desire to negotiate with the United States.”
Kim has options other than reigniting nuclear and ballistic tests. He could choose to wait, particularly given that Trump is likely to be sidetracked by his own domestic troubles for the foreseeable future.
Some analysts in South Korea feared that Trump might revert to his “fire and fury” rhetoric to divert from his political problems at home, but further concessions by the North Koreans are unlikely. In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim had already threatened to find “a new way” if Washington upheld punishing economic sanctions.
Daniel C. Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University who had followed previous negotiations with North Korea, said he thought the collapse of the latest talks was “the end of any meaningful diplomacy with North Korea.”
“Once you have to get to the point where you have to get something that takes you over the line into real denuclearization, the North Koreans always bail out,” he said.
Going home without an agreement could be a huge embarrassment for Kim, experts said. He had taken a 65-hour train ride across China to Vietnam, and North Korea’s propagandists had earlier said that Kim was working for “comprehensive and epoch-making results.”
“It will be difficult for Kim to save face domestically with no concrete outcome from the Hanoi summit,” said Alison Evans, a senior researcher at IHS Markit. Some analysts in South Korea have even speculated Kim might purge some of his negotiators for failing to predict Trump’s behavior.
In the short term, Trump’s decision to walk away from the negotiating table brought relief to many in Japan, and to some in South Korea, too.
There were concerns in both countries that Trump might sign a deal in which North Korea would give up its intercontinental ballistic missiles but keep its stockpile of short- to midrange missiles, which can reach neighboring countries.
Not signing such a deal was a signal that “we will not make easy concessions,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said in comments to reporters after being briefed by Trump over the phone. Ichiro Fujisaki, former Japanese ambassador to Washington, said that no deal was preferable to a “bad deal.”
Some commentators were a little more pointed in their analysis. During one talk show in Japan, Toru Yamaji, a journalist, referred to the Hanoi summit as a meeting between the “mafia” — meaning Kim — and a “charlatan” — Trump.
“This time the charlatan was a cut above,” Yamaji said.
The South Korean government of Moon, who has staked considerable political capital on helping to bring peace to the peninsula, was struggling to pick up the pieces after the breakdown of the summit meeting. Moon vowed to strengthen his country’s role as a mediator between the North and the United States.
“Now our role has become even more important,” Moon said during a nationally televised speech Friday marking the anniversary of Koreans’ uprising against Japanese colonialists a century ago. He vowed to help the talks reach a “complete settlement by any means.”
Moon also spoke about a “yearning for reconciliation” on the Korean Peninsula, and about plans to reconnect railroads between the North and South. He had hoped that the lifting of sanctions on the North would allow the two Koreas to cooperate on such measures as reopening a resort at Diamond Mountain, a little over 30 miles from the border with South Korea.
With Moon’s approval ratings falling because of South Korea’s stubborn economic troubles, the president is desperate to jump-start his signature policy advancing the North’s denuclearization and improving inter-Korean ties.
Abe’s biggest concern was to ensure Trump raised the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents more than 40 years ago. Trump assured him that he brought up the issue after his dinner with Kim on Wednesday night, Abe told reporters.
More broadly, the collapse of the Hanoi talks perhaps revealed a lack of understanding on both sides about what the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” that Kim and Trump agreed to when they first met in Singapore in June would really entail.
North Korea wanted sanctions eased in return for a partial dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, while the United States demanded more serious commitments to denuclearization before providing significant sanctions relief.
Kim may find himself under pressure domestically to continue negotiations. North Korea’s economy is believed to have declined in the last two years. Although the North’s showpiece capital, Pyongyang, appears better off under Kim, some humanitarian aid workers say the situation in rural areas has grown dire.
“The public health system is deteriorating, and it is estimated that in the next five years, if the current trend continues, it will not be able to control these infectious diseases,” said Kim Tae-hoon, executive director of DoDaum, a humanitarian group based in New York, who frequently visits North Korea to help fight HIV and other illnesses.
Kim Tae-hoon said that the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and hepatitis was on the rise in the North, and that North Korean officials feared that the situation might “lead to growing dissent and internal revolt.”
But if the North Korean leader is tempted to threaten the world with nuclear mayhem again, that strategy may prove less effective than it did when it first led to a meeting with Trump.
Having entered talks with the American president, Kim has “demonstrated the fact that he is a rational, calculating leader,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “That has undermined North Korea’s ability to play brinkmanship diplomacy.”