N. Korea state media quiet as Kim Jong Un makes splash in Hanoi

February 26, 2019

Hanoi, Vietnam Kim Jong Un’s arrival here Tuesday grabbed global attention, with pundits from Sydney to Stockholm weighing in on everything from his coifed haircut to the cigarettes he smokes to the big question of whether he’ll give up his nuclear weapons.

Back in Pyongyang, however, it was an entirely different story. Actually, it wasn’t a story. North Korean state media was silent for a second consecutive day about Mr. Kim’s trip, let alone the very high-stakes talks he’ll hold here Wednesday and Thursday with President Trump.

The regime’s tightly controlled propaganda machine did roll out a major splash announcing Mr. Kim’s departure by train from Pyongyang on Sunday. But the lack of coverage since then has stood in stark contrast to the mountain of headlines and speculation spewing across the world over this week’s summit.

Even in Vietnam, whose communist government maintains its own tight media controls, Mr. Kim’s arrival has been covered as the historic event that it is. “North Korean leader thanks Vietnam for the heartwarming welcome” and “Elite soldiers protect North Korean leader” were the top headlines Tuesday on VNExpress, the country’s most-read news website, which carried prominent photos of Mr. Kim’s black limousine cruising through crowd-lined streets in downtown Hanoi.

The maw of motorbikes cramming nearly every intersection away from the diplomatic action carried on as normal Tuesday. But it was hard to miss the Vietnamese government’s push capitalize on the impending Trump-Kim summit as a sign of Vietnam’s own arrival on the world stage. Large blue and white signs peppering the streets of Hanoi advertise the summit and carry the message: “Hanoi The City of Peace.”

Local bars are even getting in on the action, serving up special drinks such as beer on tap renamed “Kim Jong Ale,” although authorities have made it clear the tolerance for shenanigans goes only so far. Police, for instance, reportedly detained Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump impersonators who showed up at a local TV station to do an interview on Friday. The two were released and told if they didn’t knock it off they’d be deported, according to Agence France-Presse.

But for all the excitement, North Korea’s citizenry remains in the dark, with almost no coverage of the events unfolding around the nation’s leader in Hanoi. The Kim regime’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, last weighed in on Mr. Kim’s movements Sunday.

The KCNA announced his departure from Pyongyang for Vietnam and ran a commentary warning Mr. Trump not to listen to critics and skeptics specifically the “Democratic Party” and “U.S. intelligence agencies” seeking to “disrupt” negotiations with North Korea.

Rodong carried a full page of articles Sunday about Mr. Kim’s departure on a long train journey through China to hold a second summit with Mr. Trump in Hanoi, but steered clear of any speculation on what might occur at the meeting.

“There were not any predictions or anything like that. These were very simple articles,” said Paik Haksoon, a long-time North Korea analyst and the president of the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank in South Korea.

However, Mr. Paik, who is in Hanoi this week on the sidelines of the summit stressed that even the simple coverage in North Korean media was unusual. “This is actually a very new phenomena and I think its a sign and a positive development,” he told The Washington Times in an interview Tuesday.

“If you compare the North Korean reporting on Kim Jong Un’s departure to the lack of such reporting in the past on his father for instance on Kim Jong Il’s departures to foreign lands this is a really new development,” said Mr. Paik. “This time, they immediately reported on the departure itself. In past times, everything was reported only after Kim Jong Un’s father returned home to North Korea. That’s when there would be stories about his itinerary and things like that.”

“This shows that Kim Jong Un is a very different kind of young man and leader I think,” he added.

Others are more circumspect.

“The reason there is so little about this in the North Korean media is that Kim’s being very careful,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former high-level CIA official, who is also in Hanoi this week. “It’s partly because he just doesn’t know how this going to go and he wants to control the message. His people know he’s coming here to Vietnam, but they’re not going to do a lot of speculation the way we do in the States.”

“Kim will meet Trump and then come out with a statement and he’s going to try and control it post-facto with North Korean state media weighing in only afterward with an approved message of what happened at the summit, even if it’s not reflecting the truth,” said Mr. Hoffman.

“Remember,” he said, “Kim is a ruthless, brutal dictator who killed his own half brother. But he’s also very cautious and that would be natural because he’s a ruthless dictator and when he steps out of his own hermit kingdom, he’s subjected to the free market and free press and free discourse and all the things that threaten his society. So he’s going to be extraordinarily cautious.”

The caution could perhaps best be felt on the streets Tuesday around the Melia Hotel in downtown Hanoi, where tight security during the hours leading up to Mr. Kim’s arrival at the hotel featured armored Vietnamese military vehicles and machine-gun carrying soldiers. A security cordon stretching around the hotel kept several hundred mostly South Korean journalists at bay.

Authorities say more than 3,000 foreign journalists have descended on Hanoi, with the South Koreans appearing to have arrived in the greatest number in hopes of catching a first-hand glimpse of the elusive, 35-year-old North Korean dictator.

The Vietnamese government isn’t taking any chances. One story on VNExpress on Tuesday warned that security is likely only to get tighter as the week’s events unfold. Vehicles transporting cargo, it said, will be “banned” from the streets during certain hours on Wednesday when Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump meet.

But the feeling here is that if things go well at the summit, it will all be worth it because the long term payoff for Vietnam’s reputation as peace-loving destination will be big. “If Vietnam organizes the event well, the world will remember it as a safe, friendly place,” Nguyen Cong Hoan, deputy general director of the destination management company Hanoi Redtours told the news outlet.

“More international tourists will consider Vietnam their next destination,” he said.