Kim Jong-un has set off from Pyongyang for his second meeting with Donald Trump on a rail journey which will take over 60 hours to Vietnam’s Dong Dang station before a road move of another three hours to Hanoi.
It is unclear why the North Korean leader did not take a flight of three and half hours instead of the train, which is particularly slow because it is heavily armoured. One theory is that the country’s state jet, Chammae-1, is of ancient Soviet vintage and has experienced mechanical problems. Kim had to borrow a plane from the Chinese government to meet Trump at their first summit last year in Singapore.
But Kim was in no hurry and neither, it appears, is the US president. “I am in no rush,” Trump said in Washington. “I don’t want to rush anybody. I just don’t want [nuclear] testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy. We both expect a continuation of the progress made at first summit in Singapore.”
In reality nothing much had been progressed since the Singapore summit where an agreement, vague in details, was signed last June, with the general aspiration to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. But there is little sign of that seven months on, with disagreements about how the process of disarmament would even begin.
Trump stated that he was not going to press Kim on denuclearisation at the Hanoi meeting before going on to claim in a tweet that North Korea “has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation” if it did not have nuclear weapons. The problems in achieving this phenomenal growth rate in a country with a shattered economy and a broken infrastructure, would be solved, according to Trump “because of its location (and him) [Kim]”.
After the Singapore summit Trump had tweeted “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office, there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, seemed to contradict the president during a TV show on Sunday.
“Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?” he was asked in a CNN interview.
“Yes,” replied Pompeo. “But the President said it doesn’t,” journalist Jake Tapper pointed out. The secretary of state insisted: “That’s not what he said ... I know precisely what he said.”
Pompeo, in another interview, wanted to downplay any suggestion that there may be a breakthrough in Hanoi. “We may not get everything down this week [but] we hope we’ll make a substantial step along the way.”
There have been persistent reports from diplomats and officials that Pompeo has privately expressed frustration at how little has been achieved since Singapore and is also worried how Kim has outwitted Trump.
The North Korean leader, for example, achieved a long held aim of Pyongyang, to stop the annual joint military exercises by American and South Korean forces, without having to give up anything much in return.
Ian Bremner, the president and founder of the international Eurasia Group research institute held: “There is no optimism in the administration. Pompeo is deeply sceptical that we are going to get anything of substance on denuclearisation from Kim Jong-un and Pompeo believes the North Koreans are just playing for time.”
John Bolton has been more openly sceptical of the negotiations, accusing Pyongyang of “not taking effective action” following the Singapore meeting. The national security advisor had, at one stage, suggested that Kim Jong-un should follow the “Libya model” in ridding itself of nuclear weapons.
Muammar Gaddafi had given up his nuclear arsenal in 2003, with western assurances of security, to get back into the international fold. The North Koreans, recalling how the Libyan leader was subsequently deposed, captured and killed by rebels with the help of Nato bombing, protested vehemently about Bolton’s proposal.
Kim Kye-gwan, first vice-minister of foreign affairs, described it as a “manifestation of (an) awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers”.
The US president’s critics are apprehensive that he may make grandiose gestures of concessions to Kim. The US-based think-tank, National Security Action, charged: “Time and again, Trump has placed politics ahead of policy, and his approach to North Korea – emphasising showy summits over sustained, serious diplomacy – has been no different ... Only principled, strategic, and most likely long-term engagement will set the stage for real progress towards the most important objective: denuclearisation.
“Anything else is empty political bluster designed to fortify Trump’s poll numbers, potentially even at the expense of our national security by offering de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and strengthening Kim Jong-un’s position without meaningful concessions.”
Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, pointed out that Trump will welcome a distraction from domestic woes.
“There will be lots of photo opportunities for Trump in Hanoi and he will make lots of use of them, but no one is saying there will be anything of substance. But there is trouble piling up at home while he is away,” he maintained.
There had been frenzied media speculation that the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into alleged Russian collusion in getting Trump to the White House would be delivered this week. This was denied by the Justice Department at the weekend. One reason for the delay in Mueller sending his findings to Attorney General William Barr was the view that it should wait until the president is back in the country.
The Democrats, now in control of the House of Representatives, have warned of legal action if Barr attempts to suppress significant parts of the report. Meanwhile House Democrats have introduced a resolution to block the president from building his wall with Mexico through emergency powers. Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated: “The president’s act is lawless. It does violence to our constitution and therefore to our democracy. His declaration strikes at the heart of our founders’ concept of America, which demands separation of powers.”
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