By Edward Wong and David E. Sanger
President Donald Trump met over dinner Wednesday with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, opening the second historic summit between the two to discuss steps North Korea should take to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and measures to establish a permanent peace on the divided Korean Peninsula.
“I think your country has tremendous economic potential,” Trump told Kim after the two shook hands against a backdrop of North Korean and American flags and in front of a roomful of reporters in Hanoi. “I think you will have a tremendous future with your country — a great leader. And I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen.”
Kim did not address the reporters, although he and Trump whispered to each other when they first met. Wearing a black, Asian-style suit, he sat and smiled as Trump spoke to him. At dinner, he praised Trump for a “courageous decision” to start a dialogue.
The two leaders met at the Metropole hotel in downtown Hanoi, the capital of a country that is undergoing rapid economic growth decades after a Communist army defeated the U.S. military and their South Vietnamese allies in a costly civil war. U.S. officials hope firsthand evidence of that economic transformation will help persuade Kim to end his nuclear program and establish robust trade ties with the United States, South Korea and other nations.
Trump’s motorcade pulled up to the Metropole after dark. The hotel, one block east of Hoan Kiem Lake, has suites named after prominent past guests — Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. But it is safe to say that few dinners there have featured as unlikely a pairing as the one Wednesday night.
Trump’s meetings with Kim in the evening and with Vietnamese leaders in the morning took place as news emerged in the United States of scathing and incriminatory comments against the president that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, planned to make in Congressional testimony Wednesday. Trump’s posts on Twitter indicated that he had been distracted by U.S. politics even as he was preparing for the dinner and his further crucial discussions Thursday with Kim.
U.S. negotiators, including Stephen E. Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, arrived in Hanoi several days before Trump to meet with North Korean counterparts and lay the groundwork for Thursday’s talks.
The United States hopes to get Kim to agree to meaningful steps toward denuclearization, in contrast to the results of the meeting between the two leaders last June in Singapore.
At the end of that meeting, officials issued a vague communiqué that said the countries would work together on four points: improving relations, establishing a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula, affirming that Pyongyang would work toward “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula, and the mutual return of remains from soldiers killed in the Korean War.
Trump then said on Twitter that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. But by this year, senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser, were asserting the opposite — that the threat remained and that the North had done little to dismantle its nuclear program, despite Pompeo’s attempts at diplomacy. Pompeo attended the Wednesday dinner with Trump.
Trump’s success or failure in moving toward denuclearizing North Korea — what the meetings are supposed to be all about — may hinge on one measure: the fate of a remote nuclear site surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, under watch by U.S. intelligence since the early 1980s.
The site, called Yongbyon, is the centerpiece of North Korean nuclear-fuel making.
If Trump can get the production of nuclear fuel stopped at Yongbyon, he will have at least “frozen” the program, though at a moment when the North has 30 to 60 nuclear weapons. Halting production would mean dismantling the old reactor, neutralizing a new one, and taking apart a uranium enrichment facility. (U.S. intelligence officials say they believe there is at least one other such facility apart from Yongbyon.)
Trump has been told that if he can get the facilities destroyed, he will have made progress no other president ever has. If he cannot, the North Koreans will just keep producing fuel, and maybe new bombs, while the talks drag on.
And of course, Trump needs to get Kim to agree to readmit international inspectors, who were thrown out years ago. It is their job to document which facilities are being taken apart, and to track the stockpiles of uranium and plutonium.
“That’s what denuclearization would look like, but this will be a very hard job,” Joseph Y. Yun, a former North Korea envoy for the State Department, said here in Hanoi.
For their part, the North Koreans want concessions from the United States that could jump-start their economy, like sanctions relief.
Jean H. Lee, a Korea expert at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research organization, said of Kim that “he does want a changed relationship with the United States, and to improve his country’s shattered economy.”
“But we need to remember that he sacrificed his people’s well-being, making decisions that deprived them of food, clean water, electricity, heat and medicine, in order to build nuclear weapons,” Lee added. “He won’t be willing to give his weapons up readily, and may be prepared to sacrifice his people again if things don’t go his way.”
Kim also wants an end-of-war declaration, which would be short of a peace treaty, to replace the armistice reached in 1953 that halted the Korean War. Trump reportedly agreed to just that when the men met in Singapore, but he pulled back after his advisers said it would be bad negotiating strategy to give the North a formal end to hostilities in return for precious little.
One likely outcome of the summit meetings is that Trump and Kim will agree that South Korea can step up its direct economic interchanges with the North, even if United Nations sanctions on the country remain.
In the morning, Trump went to Hanoi’s presidential palace to meet with President Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam, who is also the country’s Communist Party chief.
“We both felt very good about having this summit in Vietnam because you really are an example of what can happen with good thinking,” Trump said at a conference table with senior officials from both governments before the meeting began.
Trump and Trong walked into a ballroom later and performed a signing ceremony for commercial business deals, including the sale of 100 Boeing 737 Max jets to VietJet Air, a private Vietnamese airline, for nearly $13 billion at list prices, and 10 Boeing 787 Dreamliners to Bamboo Airways, another private airline in Vietnam, for $3 billion.
Afterward, Trump met with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam. As Trump strode along a red carpet at the government office, about 100 schoolchildren in white uniforms lined the path and waved the bright-red socialist flag of Vietnam and the American flag.
With the two Vietnamese leaders, Trump also discussed what the White House called “a free and open Indo-Pacific with shared principles of respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, and freedom of navigation and overflight.”
That is a reference to Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea and in other disputed or international waters.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has been in Vietnam this week and told Russian state-run news media that “the U.S. is even asking our advice” on matters to do with the summit meeting.
In a speech in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, Lavrov said that while he hoped for progress in bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea, “our goal is much broader, in the context of long-term stabilization, to develop a mechanism of peace and security in Northeast Asia.”