HANOI, Vietnam – With nervous world capitals looking on, President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are beginning their second nuclear summit with a one-on-one discussion and an intimate dinner as hard questions swirl about what the American president will demand and Pyongyang might be willing to give up.
The two leaders and their aides encamped in Hanoi after long journeys by plane, train and automobile – Trump on Air Force One, Kim in an armored railcar and limousine – for two days of talks addressing perhaps the world’s biggest security challenge: Kim’s nuclear program that stands on the verge of realistically threatening targets around the planet.
Although many experts are skeptical Kim will give up the nuclear weapons he likely sees as his best guarantee of continued rule, there was a palpable, carnival-like excitement among many in Hanoi as final preparations were made for Wednesday’s summit opening. There were also huge traffic jams in the already congested streets.
Trump was opening his visit in morning meetings with Vietnam’s president and prime minister before turning his attention to Kim. Official greetings with the normally reclusive leader will give way to a short one-on-one discussion before what’s being described as a social dinner with an exclusive guest list. The White House said Trump will be joined at the dinner by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Kim, too, will have two aides with him, and there will be translators for each side.
Trump and Kim will have a series of additional official meetings Thursday.
Kim, who arrived in Hanoi first, spent Tuesday traveling around the Vietnamese capital in his limousine. With a squad of bodyguards in tow, he visited sections of Hanoi, including his nation’s embassy where a loud cheer went up as he entered the compound.
As host, Vietnam is eager to show off its huge economic and development improvements since the destruction of the Vietnam War. But the country also tolerates no dissent and is able to provide the kind of firm hand not allowed by more democratic potential hosts.
Trump arrived late Tuesday after a 20-hour trip that included refueling stops in England and Qatar. He shook hands with dignitaries on a red carpet flanked by Vietnamese troops in crisp white uniforms. The route to his hotel was decorated with American, North Korean and Vietnamese flags, and adults and children peered out upper-floor windows holding up cellphones to capture his arrival.
“Tremendous crowds, and so much love!” the U.S. president tweeted.
Kim’s journey to the summit, though shorter in distance, was even more protracted. He took a nearly 70-hour train ride through southern China and then traveled from a Vietnamese border town in his limousine. Hours ahead of his border crossing at Dong Dang, footage from Japanese TV network TBS showed Kim taking a pre-dawn smoke break at a train station in China. A woman who appeared to be his sister, Kim Yo Jong, held a crystal ashtray at the ready.
In Hanoi, soldiers, police and international journalists thronged the streets outside Kim’s hotel, and hundreds of eager citizens stood behind barricades hoping to see the North Korean leader. As flags from the three countries fluttered in a chilly drizzle, dozens of cameras flashed and some citizens screamed and used their mobile phones to capture Kim’s arrival.
“I like him,” local resident Van Dang Luu, who works at a nearby bank, said of Kim. “He is very young and he is very interesting. And he is very powerful,” she said. “Trump is not young, but I think he is very powerful.”
The leaders first met last June in Singapore, a summit that was long on historic pageantry but short on any enforceable agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea has spent decades, at great economic sacrifice, building its nuclear program, and there is widespread skepticism that it will give away that program cheaply.
Trump laid out ultimate goals for both the U.S. and Kim before leaving Washington: “We want denuclearization, and I think he’ll have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy.”
He has praised Pyongyang for ceasing missile tests, and has appeared to ease up on demanding a timeline for disarmament. Kim is seeking relief from crushing U.S. sanctions.
Even as he tamped down expectations that he’ll achieve big strides toward denuclearization, Trump was still eager to claim an attention-grabbing victory to offset the political turmoil he faces at home.
With the president out of the country, his former personal lawyer was testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday about alleged misconduct by Trump, the House was expected to approve legislation aimed at blocking Trump from steering billions of extra dollars to his Southwest border wall, and a House committee voted to subpoena administration officials over family separations at the border.