Trump seeks to cement his ‘very special’ relationship with North Korea

Despite pleasantries, US president still needs to secure specifics in talks with Kim Jong-un

 US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sit down for dinner during a summit at the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sit down for dinner during a summit at the Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

 

As his long-time lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen began his public testimony before the House of Representatives oversight committee on Wednesday, more than 13,000km across the globe Donald Trump was preparing for one of the most consequential meetings of his presidency.

Eight months after his first summit with Kim Jong-un, Trump is holding talks with the North Korean leader for a second time.

The two met for a dinner on Wednesday night along with senior officials, including US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and further meetings were scheduled for Thursday. “Greet meetings and dinner tonight in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, ” Mr Trump tweeted after the dinner. “Very good dialogue. Resuming tomorrow!”

As the two men stood in front of the cameras, Mr Kim said the meeting was taking place “thanks to the courageous decision” by the US president. Speaking through an interpreter, the North Korean leader said that a “lot of painstaking efforts” and “a lot of patience” had been necessary since the last summit.

“But here we are today, sitting next to each other, and that gives us a hope that we will be successful with time – I will really try to make that happen.”

Mr Trump was similarly optimistic. “A lot of things are going to be solved I hope,” he said, describing his relationship with Mr Kim as “very special”.

But despite the warm words, there were signs that the two sides were far apart on many of the key issues ahead of Thursday’s meetings. The main issue remains the definition of the term “denuclearisation” and whether North Korea is serious about reducing its nuclear stockpile.

Significantly, Mr Trump’s comments in the presence of Mr Kim ahead of the dinner again suggested that he may be willing to lower the bar when it comes to the timing of denuclearisation. “Some people would like to see it go quicker. I’m satisfied, you’re satisfied – we want to be happy with what we’re doing,” he said.

Emerging narrative

His comments are part of an emerging narrative from the White House in recent weeks that seeks to highlight the progress already made by the administration in de-escalating tensions with North Korea, rather than focus on what still needs to be achieved.

Nonetheless, all sides will want to leave Hanoi with some specifics to show. Among the suggestions on the table is an agreement to open “liaison” offices in Pyongyang and Washington, a symbol of improving diplomatic relations. A declaration announcing the official end of the Korean War is also being mooted.

In terms of denuclearisation, US officials are seeking some concrete move on the part of North Korea to dismantle at least some of its nuclear facilities, while Pyongyang is seeking some form of sanctions relief.

Mr Trump spoke profusely about North Korea’s economic potential in his public comments alongside Mr Kim. He also highlighted Vietnam’s economic recovery in a tweet, adding that North Korea could do the same “very quickly”. Whether the promise of sanctions relief is enough to entice Mr Kim to denuclearise may be the defining issue of this summit.

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