Things did not go great when US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un met in Vietnam. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

On a poignant date in peninsula history on Friday, both Koreas tried to promote upbeat narratives after Thursday’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump – despite the highly-anticipated meeting ending early, without any agreement or declaration, and with the two leaders even foregoing a planned lunch.

North Korean state media was in a conciliatory mode. On Friday, the leading Rodong Shinmun newspaper covered the summit in detail with text and images on its front page, but did not mention the failure to reach an agreement.

The Korea Central News Agency wrote that the two leaders had departed amicably and had promised to hold another meeting. “They agreed to keep in close touch with each other for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the epochal development of [North Korea]-US relations in the future, too, and continue productive dialogs for settling the issues discussed at the Hanoi summit,” the report read.

No loss for Kim

Kim “expressed his thanks to Trump” the report stated. That echoed Trump’s continued personal goodwill towards Kim, which the US president expressed during his press conference on Thursday, despite the problematic conclusion to the summit.

Kim was still in the Vietnamese capital on Friday. He was expected to hold talks with Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong and also to meet Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phoc, according to Vietnamese officials at the International Media Center in Hanoi.

On Saturday, Kim is expected to pay his respects to revered independence leader Ho Chi Minh, who, like his own father, Kim Il Sung, lies preserved in a city-center mausoleum, before heading home via train through China.

Typically for a leader whose every movement is surrounded by secrecy, it was not known if Kim would meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on his way home. Experts said that – given the idiosyncrasies of his governance system – Kim could hardly lose, whatever the summit outcome.

“Kim, after all, is sticking to his guns and the summit shows this to Trump,” Go Myong-hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute of Policy Studies told Asia Times. “The fallout to his credibility is not going to be major: The fact that the leader of a little country, a poor country, is able to sit down alone with US president is achievement enough.”

Kim’s apparently negotiating red line in Hanoi may also fortify his position with his generals.

“I would say that Kim Jong Un has mixed feelings, but as long as he can cite the US as a boogeyman, he can rally the loyalty of his generals,” Erwin Tan, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies said to Asia Times. “Kim could be seen as standing firm against the Americans.”

No shine for Moon

The outlook is more nuanced for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon has made North Korea relations central to his platform – a tricky task given that he also has to manage relations with his nation’s key ally, the mercurial Trump – but is also suffering dents to his popularity from perceived economic policy failures.

Post-summit, Trump called Moon for a 25-minute phone discussion on Thursday. During that chat, Moon said he “looked forward to productive results at follow-up consultations between the US and North Korean leaders,” according to a statement released by the Blue House, the presidential office.

Trump also asked Moon to “play an active role as a mediator,” the statement noted. Moon suggested that he and Trump meet for bilateral discussions “in the near future.”

Moon has been an enthusiastic promoter of inter-Korean reconciliation and has attempted to mend North Korea-US ties.

He has made no secret of his desire to engage North Korea economically and commercially – particularly by re-starting two flagship inter-Korean projects, the Mount Kumgang tourism zone and the Kaesong Industrial Park, which were shuttered under conservative South Korean governments.

He also seeks to link the North and South Korean rail transport nets, which would require significant South Korean investment in upgrading the dilapidated northern infrastructure. However, as these projects would require the easing or waiving of sanctions, Moon’s hopes now appear dashed – at least for the near future.

Poignant date, tragic irony

Moon had a busy schedule on Friday, as March 1 is the 100th anniversary of a nationwide independence movement against Japanese colonial rule in 1919, and a revered historical date on the national calendar. In a speech released to reporters to mark the date, Moon discussed the movement and its legacy at length, but also addressed North Korean issues.

Moon claimed that the summit had made “meaningful progress” and that the two sides had discussed opening diplomatic liaison offices in each other capitals – though no such outcome was, in fact, agreed upon. He also talked about the “completion” of railways running through the Korean peninsula – although the linkage of railways and related investment in the North’s dilapidated infrastructure is not feasible without some easing of sanctions.

This suggests that inter-Korean engagement will, for the foreseeable future, be restricted to symbolic or non-commercial measures and projects. It also suggests political damage for Moon, who has made inter-Korean relations central to his platform.

“Moon’s engagement policy is damaged, but how far the extent of the damage is, is too early tell,” said Tan. “It will be difficult [for him] as most presidents suffer falling approval ratings and there are other internal factors … all this puts multiple points of pressure on.”

Still, the Hanoi summit outcome is not a total disaster for Moon, analysts said.

“Trump picked up the phone and called Moon, and in that sense it really puts Moon’s idea of South Korea being in the driver’s seat and gives Moon a higher diplomatic profile,” said Go of the Asan Institute. “The paradoxical downside is that no economic engagement is going to work – how can he start Mount Kumgang or the Kaesong Industrial Zone or discuss a Korean War peace agreement?”

One observer who had journeyed to the summit lamented its outcome – particularly given the 20th century historical experience of Korea, a nation which suffered at the hands of greater powers – and given the poignancy of the March 1 date.

“It felt heartbreaking to me that two sides that have put so much enmity aside, and are so committed to transforming relations on the peninsula, are still hamstrung by what Washington chooses to do and not do,” said Christine Ahn, the Korean-American founder of peace activist group Women Cross DMZ. “The symbolic irony of the fate of the two Koreas, and their inability to end the Korean War coinciding with March 1, is so tragic.”

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