HANOI – President Donald Trump prepared for a historic second summit with Kim Jong Un here Wednesday as he braced for a tumultuous few days in Washington that threatened to eclipse any progress made with the North Korean dictator.
Trump will meet with Kim for a brief conversation followed by a 90-minute dinner, marking their first face-to-face encounter since the two met in Singapore last summer. The initial events, which will splash across U.S. television screens early Wednesday morning, are expected to lead to more substantive talks the next day.
But Trump’s diplomatic efforts will come as his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is expected to allege “criminal conduct” by Trump in his first public testimony before Congress. Lawmakers are also busy with a measure, approved by the Democratic-controlled House, to repeal Trump’s border wall emergency.
White House officials, mindful that Trump’s visit to Vietnam is competing for public attention, attacked Cohen as Air Force One touched down in Vietnam on the eve of the summit. And hours later, the White House formally threatened to veto the resolution to halt his emergency declaration.
“It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Trump’s domestic troubles only add to the pressure to deliver results with Kim, who has signaled an interest in stronger relations with the United States but declined to dismantle his nuclear program.
In the days leading up to the summit, Trump appeared to lower expectations, claiming he is “in no rush” for denuclearization as long as Pyongyang continues to suspend missile tests.
“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,” Trump said before departing for Vietnam.
While Trump is pushing for a detailed North Korean plan for denuclearization, Kim wants the U.S. to first end economic sanctions against his impoverished country. Trump has previously said he would not ease sanctions without concrete action from Kim.
Hours before the sit-down with the North Korean leader, Trump held largely ceremonial meetings with the leaders of Vietnam, and said their country can be a model for Kim, whom he described as “my friend.”
“Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump tweeted early in the day.
Describing North Korea’s economic potential as “AWESOME,” Trump said it is “a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”
Kim, who arrived in Hanoi after a two-and-half-day train ride through China and northern Vietnam, has said nothing publicly about the new talks with Trump.
More than four decades after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese view the summit as an opportunity to assert themselves on the world diplomatic stage. Heavily promoting the Trump-Kim summit, light poles in Hanoi are festooned with the flags of the U.S., North Korea and Vietnam, mounted on a shield featuring an image of a handshake.
Large posters advertising the summit proclaim Hanoi as “The City of Peace.”
Raising the curtain: Trump-Kim summit: What happened at their first meeting – and what to expect at their next
The demands: Trump-Kim summit: North Korea must do something ‘meaningful’ to denuclearize before sanctions relief
Trump and Kim are expected to start off with a brief one-on-one greeting in the afternoon, local time. The two leaders and their aides then have a “social dinner.” Trump will be accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Trump and Kim aides are also planning private talks. The results of that effort, if any, are expected to come at Thursday’s closing session of the summit.
A one-of-a-kind relationship: Trump-Kim summit: From fire and fury to love letters, not your traditional relationship
Among the issues on the Trump-Kim agenda:
What is ‘denuclearization’
Trump and aides have demanded that North Korea identify and destroy facilities used to make nuclear weapons. Kim, however, believes denuclearization should cover the entire region – including U.S. weapons systems designed to protect ally South Korea.
Economic sanctions standoff
Kim says he will not take major steps toward denuclearization until the United States and other countries lift at least some of the sanctions that have crippled North Korea’s economy.
Trump has said sanctions will not be removed until Kim starts to denuclearize, though he has also held out the possibility of other economic assistance.
The economy is one of the reasons the U.S. agreed to meet in Vietnam. It hopes North Korea will follow the model of its communist ally, which developed a quasi-capitalist sector after economic reforms in the 1980s. From the golden arches of McDonald’s to a Rolls-Royce dealership, western products are now widely available in the country forged by Ho Chi Minh and his followers after the Vietnam War.
Follow the money: Trump-Kim summit: Trump hints at rewards for North Korea
Business opportunities: Trump touts North Korea’s economic potential.
North Korea-U.S. relations
While neither leader is expected to open an embassy in the other’s country, negotiators are discussing “liaison offices” that could be used to improve communications between the two governments.
A formal end to the Korean War
Trump has been open to a treaty to formally end the Korean War, which is technically ongoing even though hostilities were suspended with an armistice in 1953.
Negotiators are working on what aides called a “peace declaration,” a nonbinding political statement to affirm North and South Korea are no longer at war.
The history: How the North and South negotiated a truce in Korean War
Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert with the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said Kim wants to do just enough to satisfy Trump – “like retiring an exhausted nuclear site he no longer needs” – while retaining a weapons programs he depends on for survival.
“Two steps forward and one step back is still progress for North Korea,” he said.
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst with the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said she hopes Trump and his team tread cautiously. Give too much, she said, and the U.S. will lose its leverage and get little in return.
“The president’s willingness to compromise threatens to undermine the administration’s maximum pressure strategy that brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table in the first place,” she said.
Some analysts worry that Trump may be too eager to strike even a bad deal with Kim in order to distract attention from Cohen – who apparently plans to mention the president’s Vietnam trip in his testimony.
In a prepared statement first reported late Tuesday by Politico, Cohen cited the deferments Trump received back in the 1960s to avoid military service in the Vietnam War.
“‘You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam,'” Cohen quotes Trump as saying.
In his prepared testimony, Cohen adds: “I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now.”