Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Choice of Vietnam for next Trump-Kim summit offers something for both sides

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold their second summit on Feb. 27 and 28, this time in Vietnam, Trump said during his State of the Union speech Tuesday — making for a highly symbolic choice that experts say offers something for both sides as they seek to kick-start deadlocked denuclearization talks.

In the annual speech before both houses of the Congress, Trump praised his own efforts to address the North Korean nuclear threat, touting his “bold new diplomacy” — under which Pyongyang has halted nuclear and missile tests for some 15 months — and vowed to “continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Trump did not immediately reveal where in Vietnam the talks will be held, but Hanoi, the nation’s capital, and Danang, a coastal resort town, have both been floated as possibilities.

Speaking ahead of Trump’s official announcement, Japan’s top government spokesman said Wednesday that Tokyo will work closely with Washington to address North Korea-related challenges in the run-up to the summit.

“Japan has closely cooperated with the United States over the abduction issue, which we regard as the most important, and we will firmly coordinate our policies toward the second U.S.-North Korean summit,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, referring to abductions of Japanese nationals by agents from Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.

Practically speaking, Vietnam was an obvious choice for the meeting. It is relatively close to North Korea, which means Kim can travel there without the need for a layover or borrowing a plane that can travel long distances. It is also nonaligned and has diplomatic relations with both North Korea and the U.S.

As a single-party communist state, Vietnam maintains strict political control and an efficient security apparatus. It also has experience in holding international meetings, with Danang having hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2017 and the regional edition of the high-powered World Economic Forum last year.

Perhaps most strikingly, analysts say, Vietnam also represents a potential model for Pyongyang to emulate — something the U.S. side likely factored in when agreeing on the site. In the mid-1980s, Vietnam embarked on a comprehensive program of economic reforms known as the “Doi Moi” policy that transformed the country from a nation that once fought the U.S. into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

“Vietnam is logistically convenient, diplomatically viable, and symbolically significant,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “It’s close enough to North Korea and has a developed infrastructure that can support a major summit, the two countries both have relations with Vietnam, and it is an example of a country that has embraced economic reform and normalized relations with the United States after a war.”

According to Jenny Town, a North Korea expert and research fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, Vietnam “is often discussed as a good model for North Korea to follow and one that North Koreans have studied, though while still looking for ways to adapt” to its own “specific circumstances.”

These “specific circumstances” refer to the fact that while Vietnam is not a democracy, it is not led by a single strongman and has no real cults of personality — something that could throw a wrench into any hopes by Kim, a third-generation dynasty autocrat, to build up his economy using that model.

Still, if the North is interested, Vietnamese and U.S. officials appear willing to help.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was feted during his visit to Vietnam in December, a trip that media reports said was at least in part to study the Doi Moi reforms, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in July that Pyongyang could follow in the footsteps of Hanoi.

“The miracle could be your miracle,” Pompeo said at the time of North Korea and its leader.

Beyond revealing the host country, Trump also used his speech to reiterate his stance that his leadership in the negotiating process has been indispensable in avoiding a devastating conflict.

“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he said.

Trump had raised the specter of war in 2017 when he threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea as it conducted a barrage of nuclear and missile tests that ultimately resulted in an arsenal that can threaten the United States.

But the U.S. president also noted that “much work remains to be done,” while also hinting that his relationship with Kim — which he called “a good one” — would aid in consummating a deal between the two at their talks.

The focus of those talks is likely to be whether the two can reach an agreement that gets North Korea to take concrete measures toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program under robust international verification while the U.S. offers up concessions acceptable to both sides.

The announcement also came as the top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Stephen Biegun, arrived Wednesday to meet with his North Korean counterpart. Biegun said last week that he hoped the meeting with Kim Hyok Chol would map out “a set of concrete deliverables” for the Kim-Trump summit.

Biegun, who held talks with South Korean officials in Seoul on Sunday and Monday, said in a speech at Stanford University in California on Thursday that he would be aiming for “a road map of negotiations and declarations going forward, and a shared understanding of the desired outcomes of our joint efforts.”

Trump and Kim met in Singapore last June in the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, a meeting that resulted in a vaguely worded pledge “to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Pyongyang has yet to take concrete steps in that direction, observers have said, and nuclear talks had been effectively deadlocked in the months after the Singapore summit.

The North has repeatedly blasted the U.S. for doing little to reciprocate for the actions it says it has taken to dismantle and destroy some nuclear weapons facilities, demanding that punishing U.S.-led sanctions be lifted and urging a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

In his speech last week, Biegun said the United States had told North Korea it was prepared to pursue commitments made in Singapore “simultaneously and in parallel,” and that Washington is willing to discuss “many actions” to improve ties and entice Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

But with just three weeks before the summit, the two sides will be facing down the clock.

“Three weeks is a tight time line,” said Oba. “But whether the summit produces substantive results is more about leverage and political will than time. If the United States and North Korea maintain irreconcilable negotiating positions, no amount of time would change that.

“On the other hand,” he added, “if there is a substantive agreement on the table that holds major potential benefits for the United States and North Korea, it would probably be possible to announce the broad outlines at the leader level and leave it to lower levels to flesh out the details.”

Indeed, in the end, observers say the summit itself is more likely to be about style than substance.

“The fact that it appears to be a two-day summit reflects something we already know: A lot of this is about optics, optics, optics,” said Oba. “When you have a summit for that length of time, you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing more visible, ceremonial things that are made for TV.”

Still, Oba said, “it could also be good, allowing both leaders to develop their relationship while buying more time for lower-level negotiators to finalize a joint statement.”

The Stimson Center’s Town agreed.

“A few concrete next steps and a commitment to keep negotiating is an approach that would be a useful outcome to the summit and create some actual benchmarks against which we can actually start to measure progress,” Town said.

Information from Kyodo added

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