HANOI, Vietnam — U.S. President Donald Trump enthusiastically waved a tiny Vietnamese flag Wednesday as he sought to convince North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that his nation could thrive economically like Vietnam if he would end his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“We’ll see what happens, but he wants to do something great,” Trump said, adding that Kim could use Vietnam as a model for economic revitalization. “If you look at what you’ve done in a short time, he can do it in a very, very rapid time — make North Korea into a great economic power.”
Trump expressed a similar sentiment in a tweet earlier Wednesday. “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”
Anticipation for what could come out of the summit ran high in Hanoi. But the carnival-like atmosphere in the Vietnamese capital, with street artists painting likenesses of the leaders and vendors hawking T-shirts emblazoned with their faces, stood in contrast to the serious items on the agenda: North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
While Trump held a series of meetings with his Vietnamese hosts, Kim remained at his hotel as North Korean officials toured Vietnam’s scenic Halong Bay and a nearby industrial site. South Korean TV showed a group of officials, including Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the party’s central committee, taking a cruise along the bay and visiting factories in the port city of Hai Phong.
The group also reportedly included O Su Yong, director of economic affairs at North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Experts say O’s inclusion in the delegation indicated that Kim expects to return home with economic rewards, including partial sanctions relief.
North and South Korea also want sanctions dialed back so they can resurrect two major symbols of rapprochement that provided much-needed hard currency to North Korea: a jointly run factory park in Kaesong and South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort.
“We have a very big meeting planned tonight as you know, with North Korea, Chairman Kim, and I think it may very well turn out to be very successful,” Trump told the top leaders of Vietnam.
Scoring a victory at the summit would offset Trump’s political troubles back in Washington, where Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, was prepared to tell lawmakers that Trump is a “racist,” a “conman” and a “cheat.”
Back at his hotel with hours to spare before meeting with Kim, and unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, Trump began tweeting about Cohen, a Democratic lawmaker who has criticized him in the past and other issues.
Trump said Cohen, who has been sentenced to three years in prison for lying to Congress, “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
Trump and Kim were opening their second summit with a one-on-one chat and social dinner, before additional talks Thursday. Trump was being joined at dinner by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Kim was being accompanied by Kim Yong Chol, a key negotiator in talks with the U.S., and Ri Yong Ho, the foreign affairs minister. Interpreters for each side were also attending.
There’s growing worry among experts that Trump, eager for an agreement, will give Kim too much and get too little in return — a peace declaration for the Korean War that the North could use to eventually push for the reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, for example, or sanctions relief that could allow Pyongyang to restart the lucrative economic projects with the South. Skeptics insist Trump must first get real progress on the North abandoning its nuclear weapons before giving away important negotiating leverage too soon.
Trump criticized media reports about his intentions, tweeting that “Kim Jong Un and I will try very hard to work something out on Denuclearization & then making North Korea an Economic Powerhouse. I believe that China, Russia, Japan & South Korea will be very helpful!”
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 without getting something substantial from the U.S.
That could be a declaration to end the Korean War. Such an announcement would allow Trump to make history and would dovetail with his opposition to “forever wars.” But it wouldn’t amount to concrete steps toward denuclearization and could even turn the focus of discussions to removing or reducing the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. If there is no war, North Korea could ask why the U.S. needs to have troops in South Korea at all.
The conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, essentially a cease-fire signed by North Korea, China and the 17-nation, U.S.-led United Nations Command. If made, the declaration would amount to a political statement, ostensibly teeing up talks for a formal peace treaty that would involve other nations.
Back in Washington, Cohen also planned to tell lawmakers that Trump knew ahead of time that WikiLeaks had emails damaging to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election. Cohen also was alleging that Trump implicitly, but not directly, told him to lie about a Trump real estate project in Moscow.