HANOI – As he boarded his train for the long journey home on Saturday, Kim Jong Un grinned, waved and clasped his hands above his head like a boxer celebrating victory.
North Korean state media has already proclaimed his summit meeting with President Trump in Vietnam a success, but in reality the North Korean leader embarks on the long journey home largely empty-handed. He is likely to spend part of the time pondering his next move, especially because he has set great store in a campaign to revive the country’s economy.
“The North Koreans are in a seriously troubling situation now,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Kim Jong Un is still under pressure from sanctions, and it’s not clear what to do with the Americans. Most likely they will still keep talking, because Donald Trump remains very, very dangerous.”
After the breakdown of the summit the previous day, Kim spent Friday meeting with Vietnam’s top leaders in Hanoi.
There was the usual pomp and ceremony, with a communist tint: Kim stood beside President Nguyen Phu Trong at a welcome reception outside the presidential palace as a military band played the two countries’ national anthem, and ambled down a red carpet past an honor guard, flanked by a goose-stepping soldier in a white uniform.
There was a banquet and an arts performance, and on Saturday morning a chance to solemnly pay his respects to the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam’s Communist revolution, before his motorcade set off north for the Chinese border.
But there were no trips to manufacturing or tourism projects in the port city of Haiphong or Ha Long Bay that had been foreshadowed, and were supposed to signal North Korea’s intent to open its economic doors to the world.
“Despite the upbeat portrayal in the state media, the summit collapse should have left Kim and his aides in grave shock,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea leadership expert at South Korea's Sejong Institute.
“In that state of mind, they seemingly didn't have the bandwidth to travel to factories in Haiphong factories or to Ha Long Bay, and decided to limit their activities to official bilateral events with the Vietnamese leadership.”
Earlier this week, a senior North Korean delegation had visited a series of factories in the port city of Haiphong, including a plant making the country’s first domestically produced car, a telecommunications factory owned by the military, a plastic bag factory and a high-tech agricultural zone, according to Vietnamese state media.
The delegation had visited a luxury hotel and cruised through the limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay. But with sanctions still firmly in place, there obviously wasn’t much point in Kim going there.
If the North Korean leader was angry or disappointed with the failure of his summit with Trump, he showed no sign of it as he left on Saturday morning, twice stopping to wave and grin at flag-waving crowds gathered outside Dong Dang station near Vietnam’s border with China.
Then, he boarded his personal, armored train. Whether he will go straight home to Pyongyang, a 2,500 mile, 65-hour journey, or pass by Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, remains to be seen.
Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected from the embassy in Britain in 2016, said Kim had been so confident of the summit’s success that he’d brought a large entourage on his train, including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong and more than half of the ruling Politburo.
“Although it was publicized as a success in the state media, the ‘no deal summit’ witnessed by many officials would have irked Kim Jong Un,” he told Channel A news. “Kim tried to contain his anger and appear outwardly calm during his public appearance in Vietnam. But Kim Yo Jong and other aides had grim faces.”
Asia Press, a Japan-based website with a network of contacts inside North Korea, said it had spoken by telephone to a source living near the Chinese border who said traders there had widely expected sanctions relief after the Hanoi summit, and would now be disappointed.
But experts said the damage to Kim’s standing would be limited, with the blame likely to be shifted onto Washington.
“The no deal summit will be preached to the North Korean public as the Supreme Leader’s heroic safeguard of national security against the American raiders’ push to disarm the regime,” said Ahn Chan-il, a high-ranking North Korean defector who now runs the World Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“The military authorities in Pyongyang will actually welcome the breakdown of the nuclear summit. The switch to a peace regime would have diminished the power of the military in North Korea.”
The United States says the Trump-Kim summit failed because North Korea demanded the removal of almost all economic sanctions in return for a partial closure of a nuclear complex, without promising even to freeze its nuclear and missile program.
But on Friday, China said it believed some sanctions relief was still justified.
“The U.N. Security Council should relaunch discussions on reversible clauses of the resolution and readjust sanctions accordingly, based on the principle of simultaneous reciprocity,” spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news conference.
That appeal is set to fall on deaf ears in Washington, with the United States almost certain to veto any attempts to ease sanctions.
Lankov, who is also a director of the NK News service, said he expected China to ease up on the implementation of sanctions but not ignore them entirely.
“China wants to position itself as the guardian of the international law and international norms when Donald Trump is so eager to break them,” he said. “So for China, it's not a good idea to openly violate sanctions. They will do whatever is possible within plausible deniability limits.
In North Korea, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers Party of Korea, devoted the first five pages of a special eight-page Saturday edition to Kim’s visit to Vietnam.
Kim said both countries and communist parties should carry forward friendly and cooperative relations “forged in blood generation after generation, true to the intentions of the preceding leaders,” Korean Central News Service reported. They would advance bilateral cooperation in the economy and defense, as well as everything from science to the arts, he said.
The Hanoi summit was another chance for Kim to parade on the world stage, and chip away at his country’s diplomatic isolation. But Vietnam, emerging as an important regional player in its own right, is never going to become an important economic or diplomatic ally. Indeed, this was the first visit by a North Korean leader to Vietnam since Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, came here in 1964.
Economically, Vietnam doesn’t need cheap labor or textiles from North Korea, but instead depends heavily on investment from South Korea. Diplomatically, despite the fact that North Korean lent some support to North Vietnam during its war with the United States, ties are not particularly close.
Indeed, the two countries fell out badly over Cambodia in 1979, with North Korea backing Pol Pot in the face of a Vietnamese invasion.
Min Joo Kim in Hanoi and Anna Fifield in Beijing contributed to this report.