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Weak economy may force North Korea to return to negotiating table

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It remains difficult to measure how much North Korea is hurt by sanctions.

Seoul

WHEN the armoured train carrying Kim Jong Un back from his summit meeting with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam reached Pyongyang Station at 3.08 am on Tuesday, throngs of flower-waving North Koreans greeted their leader with "boundless emotions and excitement", the country's state-run media said.

But Mr Kim returned home empty-handed - without relief from international sanctions - prompting the question of what he will do next: Particularly, will he resume his nuclear and missile brinkmanship to reassert his leverage?

The revelation on Wednesday that North Korea had started rebuilding the partly dismantled facilities at Tongchang-ri, where the country tests technologies for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, raised the spectre that Mr Kim was returning to his provocative behaviour.

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But experts on North Korea said that Mr Kim may be boxed in: He returned home without sanctions relief amid strong signs that the North Korean economy is continuing to contract. The deepening economic trouble may force the country to return to the negotiating table.

In restarting operations at its missile technology site, North Korea is seeking "to increase its leverage before the next round of talks", said Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

"I don't think the North will resume missile tests anytime soon and risk the resumption of United States-South Korea joint military exercises and even the talk of a military option by the Americans," he said.

The two-day Hanoi summit meeting ended last week without any agreement on the terms of denuclearising North Korea, dashing Mr Kim's hopes that he could persuade Washington to lift the most punishing sanctions against his country in return for a partial dismantlement of its nuclear programme.

Officially, both sides remain committed to dialogue, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing hope that the United States will send a delegation to North Korea "in the next couple weeks". This week, Washington cancelled two major joint military exercises with South Korea to keep the diplomatic momentum alive.

But in a telling sign of disappointment, the official Korean Central News Agency's report on Mr Kim's return home made no mention of "comprehensive and epoch-making results" that it had earlier said Mr Kim was discussing with Mr Trump in Hanoi.

"The Hanoi summit was a knockout defeat for Kim Jong Un," said Lee Seong Hyon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul. "The Kim-Trump romance may be short-lived, especially if Trump determines that playing hard ball and cornering Kim Jong Un is popular in the run-up to his next election campaign. In Hanoi, Trump learned how desperate Kim is to ease sanctions."

After the breakdown of the Hanoi talks, Mr Kim faced growing doubts at home that he could deliver on his promise to revive his country's troubled economy and keep his long-suffering people from having to "tighten their belts again".

Mr Kim might engineer a political purge to keep the elites under control and reassert his authority, Mr Lee said. He might also reshuffle his negotiating team, replacing Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief who has led negotiations with Washington, with more seasoned Foreign Ministry diplomats, Mr Lee added.

"The greatest achievement" of the Hanoi summit meeting "was to clearly prove that there is no potential for convergence between the current North Korean and American trajectories toward North Korea's denuclearisation", said Ha Young Sun, a prominent South Korean expert on North Korea, in a column posted on Global North Korea, a Seoul-based website specialising in the North.

If North Korea does not correct its course, "the regime will face a second 'Arduous March'," Mr Ha said, referring to a famine in the 1990s that may have killed millions of North Koreans.

It remains difficult to measure how much North Korea is hurt by sanctions. The United Nations has warned that the country is benefiting from sanctions loopholes, conducting ship-to-ship transfers of oil and other banned goods, with the help of Chinese and Russian entities. NYTIMES