North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday after a marathon, 70-hour train trip and limousine ride from Pyongyang to Hanoi, for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, where the two will aim to find common ground in negotiations that could ultimately see the North relinquish its nuclear weapons.
Kim’s limousine arrived at the Melia Hanoi hotel, where he is believed to be staying, after wrapping up the rail portion of his trip Tuesday morning. The North Korean leader later paid an unexpected visit to his country’s embassy in Hanoi.
His armored train had stopped earlier in the day at Dong Dang station near the Vietnamese border after a journey through China. At the station, Kim transferred to a Mercedes-Benz limo, waving from the window to scores of people lined up outside the station as bodyguards ran alongside his car. The trek made him the first North Korean leader to visit Vietnam since a 1964 trip by his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist nation.
“I had gone through a journey of more than 3,000 kilometers to Vietnam and thank the country for a warm and enthusiastic welcome,” Kim was quoted as telling Mai Tien Dung, minister of the Vietnamese Government Office, who greeted him at the train station, according to the VnExpress newspaper.
In the Vietnamese capital, police and armored cars were deployed outside of the Melia Hanoi, as well as around the corner from the Metropole Hotel, which is thought to be the summit venue, according to media reports. A number of TV camera crews had also staked out their claims in the area.
Kim was accompanied on his trip by senior officials and aides, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong. Footage taken earlier in the day broadcast by Japan’s TBS showing a pre-dawn smoke break by Kim at China’s Nanning rail station — in which Kim Yo Jong, herself a top aide to the North Korean leader, is seen holding a crystal ashtray for her brother — highlighted the pair’s close ties. Kim Yo Jong has reportedly worked tirelessly to improve the image of her brother as a statesman.
Kim’s second time sharing the global stage with Trump is expected to further burnish this image.
The two will begin their two-day summit Wednesday with an official greeting and a “social dinner,” according to the White House. Trump will be joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday, and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Kim will also have two aides present, with one expected to be Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang’s former intelligence chief and a key negotiator in the talks. Both leaders will have translators.
Pompeo was also to meet later in the day with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, who has held several days of talks with his counterparts to hammer out any possible agreement ahead of the summit.
On Thursday, Trump and Kim will hold a series of official meetings, though no schedule for the summit’s second day has been released.
The U.S. leader was set to land in Vietnam late Tuesday and will have meetings with the host country’s president and prime minister Wednesday before talks with Kim. Media reports said Trump was likely to stay at the JW Marriott in the western part of the city.
Last June’s Singapore summit yielded powerful images but few concrete steps for North Korea’s denuclearization, and Trump has played down the possibility of reaching an actual deal that sees Pyongyang immediately relinquish its nukes. However, there have been signs that the two sides could agree to a declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which was halted only with an armistice.
Adding to the speculation, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Monday that a declaration was a “possibility.”
Unlike a formal peace treaty, an end-of-war declaration is a legally nonbinding document and would represent a symbolic end to the Korean War. Still, the U.S. would likely expect significant concessions from the North Korean side in return.
This could include inspections at its Nyongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the heart of its nuclear development and research, which Kim last year put on the table. Other concessions could include a formal halt to missile and nuclear tests, as well as an end to the production of fissile material and nuclear delivery vehicles.
But any decision to scrap its intercontinental ballistic missiles only — even as an initial step — is likely to fuel apprehension in Tokyo and Seoul, which would still be within range of the North’s shorter-range weapons.
From the U.S. side, a possible deal could include establishing liaison offices in the North or a limited easing of sanctions, such as allowing inter-Korean economic cooperation to resume.
Observers say that a package of inducements and concessions from both sides could give negotiators fresh momentum and a new avenue to pursue peace and, ultimately, denuclearization on the peninsula.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said “a smorgasbord of options” exist, but noted that “it does appear that we’re heading into the summit with some momentum toward a peace declaration.”
Oba also noted the Trump administration’s strong desire for a road map going ahead.
“Whether such a road map could include Nyongbyon, sanctions relief, or liaison offices is an open question right until a joint statement is released — but the fact that some of these things appear to be part of the negotiations is a good sign,” he said.
The United States also must be ready to put on the table “some meaningful things” North Korea wants, “especially sanctions relief and steps toward political normalization,” if it hopes to gain more leverage toward denuclearization.
Trump said cryptically at the White House on Monday just prior to his departure for Hanoi that he would speak with Kim “about something that, frankly, he never spoke to anybody about.” It was unclear what he was referring to, but the president has not kept his strong desire for a productive summit hidden.
“We’re speaking and we’re speaking loud,” he said. “And I think we can have a very good summit. I think we’ll have a very tremendous summit.”
Tweeting on Monday, he stressed the benefits for North Korea if it gave up its nuclear weapons. “With complete Denuclearization, North Korea will rapidly become an Economic Powerhouse. Without it, just more of the same. Chairman Kim will make a wise decision!” Trump wrote.
Experts, however, say Pyongyang is unlikely to completely relinquish its “treasured nuclear sword,” which they say Kim views as a means of preventing regime change — for economic inducements.
In what may be indicative of an ongoing shift in the White House’s stance from demanding the North’s immediate denuclearization to a more long-term approach, Trump has appeared to play down any hope of a major breakthrough at the Hanoi summit, saying Sunday that he would be happy as long as North Korea maintained its pause on weapons testing.
“I’m not in a rush. I don’t want to rush anybody,” he said. “I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.”
The North’s last nuclear test, in September 2017, was also its sixth and largest. It’s last ballistic missile test was in November of that year, when it tested a long-range missile that experts say is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.
Japan, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of working to maintain its relevance in a process that has been dominated by the U.S., the two Koreas, as well as China.
According to Oba, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top priority will be “to guarantee the optics of close consultation between the United States and Japan through calls and visits in the coming weeks and months.”
Oba said, ideally, that would include some assurance that Trump raises the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
“But substantively, unless North Korea changes its mind about engaging Japan, or there is a major agreement that requires support and economic carrots from Japan, Japan will continue to struggle to stay in the loop,” he added.