Seoul, South Korea – If their first, unprecedented summit in Singapore last year ended up being more about vague promises, the second meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump will be aimed at coming home with concrete results.
After holding a series of meetings this week with South Korean officials in Seoul, Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy for North Korea, will head to Pyongyang on Wednesday to prepare for the upcoming summit.
The much-anticipated event is slated for late February, with whispers that Danang, in central Vietnam, will be the host.
If confirmed, Vietnam‘s selection as the summit’s venue will be seen as a highly symbolic move, with something to offer both sides.
For the United States, the choice of Vietnam fits with their hopes of nudging the unwieldy Kim towards an economic and political model they would like him to follow. From the North Korean perspective, the appeal is hard to miss – Vietnam is an Asian nation divided during the Cold War, then reunited after the Communist North defeated the US-led South and kicked out their US allies at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Hanoi is currently sought after by the US to help counter China’s growing influence amid rising tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea. In October, former US Secretary of Defence James Mattis condemned Beijing’s “predatory economic behaviour” against smaller nations while en route to Vietnam.
“Vietnam was once a pariah state facing US economic sanctions,” said Sangsoo Lee, head of the Korea Center at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, referring to a 19-year trade embargo imposed by Washington that ended in 1994.
Since then, “Vietnam has become one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies,” added Lee, pointing to a surge in Hanoi-Washington trade from $451m in 1995 to nearly $52bn in 2016.
Lee says North Korea is hoping summits with Trump will spur its own economic success, and the US is nurturing these hopes in order to pry Kim away from his nuclear missiles.
For Trump himself, however, Vietnam will be an interesting choice. Critics will no doubt lambast the president for visiting a country where he “avoided military service when he was of draft age”, as well as “travelling to a country that defeated the US militarily”, noted Bruce Klingner, formerly of the CIA and now a research fellow at The Heritage House in Washington, DC.
Still, in Washington’s eyes, positioning Vietnam as a mentor to North Korea works politically as well as economically.
Improving North Korea’s economy comes with security risks for Kim and his government, as an influx of foreign investment would show citizens the state of the country.
Nonetheless, Kim has promised his people a better standard of living, and Vietnam is an example of a Communist government that managed to improve its economy while maintaining rule.
In 1986, Vietnam introduced their Doi Moi policy of economic “renovation”. The economy boomed, and the ruling Communist Party stayed in power – an idea that may be alluring to Kim, who sent his Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to Vietnam in December to study the Doi Moi reforms.
There are already signs of entrepreneurship budding inside the isolated country’s borders, with officials turning a blind eye to a rise in illegal markets, creating wealth for impoverished North Koreans.
But there might also be some more pragmatic reasons why Vietnam would make a good host. For one, it is within flying distance for Kim’s Soviet-era aircraft.
In June last year, Kim flew to the Singapore summit in a Chinese airliner loaned to him by President Xi Jinping, apparently to avoid an embarrassing stopover to refuel his out-of-date jet, while simultaneously signalling loyalty to the Chinese leader.
Vietnam also walks a fine line of being on good terms with both Washington and Pyongyang, while staying neutral on Kim’s steady stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Despite the significance of the locale, the host country will not be nearly as important as how Trump and Kim handle their negotiations. Trump is a self-proclaimed master dealer, but so far Kim may have gotten the better of him.
At their landmark summit in Singapore, Kim and Trump signed a vaguely-worded pledge on denuclearisation but progress has since stalled amid disagreements over the interpretation of the document.
In the meantime, North Korea has given up very little, returning three US hostages, the remains of US troops killed in the Korean War, and destroying an unneeded missile testing site. Its nuclear missile programme continues unimpeded, with United Nations sanctions monitors saying Pyongyang is looking for ways to ensure nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities cannot be destroyed by any military attacks.
In return, Trump has suspended joint US-South Korea military drills, a red line for past presidents.
Despite Washington’s repeated denials, some in the US are concerned that Trump will again give more than he gets by agreeing to moves such a reduction in his country’s forces in South Korea, weakening the US ally.
Others suspect he will only agree to a reduction in intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the US mainland – leaving regional allies exposed.
“All would be mistakes,” said Klingner, adding that a new agreement must “more clearly delineate North Korea’s required actions” as well as outline verification measures.
The stage is set for a second summit between the unlikely duo, with Trump sounding confident in a recent interview with CBS that there was a “good chance” of reaching a deal.
But Lee says that “although a second summit will end with more detailed plans for denuclearisation and peace agreement than the Singapore summit,” there will be lingering problems of implementation, begging the question of just how long Trump and Kim can keep momentum alive.