There were more cameras at his first summit with Kim Jong Un than the Academy Awards, President Donald Trump likes to boast to fellow foreign leaders.
When he greets the North Korean dictator again next week in Hanoi (days after this year’s Oscars, as it happens), Trump hopes the flashes are just as bright.
Around him, some aides are doubtful another summit can live up to the original, which was historic after decades of enmity between the two countries. A second meeting will never be quite the same, some have warned the President, hoping to temper his expectations.
Still, Trump is eager to use the meeting to bolster his standing on the world stage, particularly as Democrats in Congress wield newfound investigative power and Robert Mueller concludes his Russia probe. Foreign policy, with room for wide executive leeway, is an area presidents have long turned when domestic politics become irksome or difficult.
“I think next week’s going to be very exciting,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Tuesday after describing a phone call he held earlier with South Korea’s leader to discuss the summit. “I think a lot of things will come out of it. We had a tremendous first summit. That was really breaking the ice but a lot things came from that, including good relationships.”
In Hanoi, Trump is expecting a major to-do, people around him say. Teams from the United States have been dispatched to the Vietnamese capital in the hopes of finding settings that can match Trump’s expectations of a stately and historic confab – and to broker the diplomatic agreements to match.
The President has already mused at his desire to again capture the world’s attention through a repeat encounter with the reclusive and enigmatic Kim. It comes on the back of an extended fight with Congress over immigration and government funding that left Trump bruised. During a loosely-scripted appearance in the Rose Garden last week, Trump ruminated at length on the summit before turning to the less-pleasant matter at hand: Congress’ inability to pass the billions in funding he’d demanded for a border wall.
“I think a lot of you will be going, I suspect,” he told reporters. “And I hope we have the same good luck as we had in the first summit.”
So far, the good luck from Singapore has not translated into concrete steps toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump says success is evident because Pyongyang has stopped, for now, testing ballistic missiles or nuclear bombs. But US intelligence agencies say publicly there’s no sign Kim is preparing to relinquish his arsenal.
That’s left diplomatic teams working ahead of the second summit to secure some type of agreement the two leaders can sign onto that might provide more substance than the document signed in June, in which they agreed to only “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Stephen Biegun, the President’s North Korea envoy, is expected to hold preliminary talks in the Vietnamese capital with his North Korean counterpart later this week. The talks are expected to center on what steps North Korea might take toward denuclearization, and what corresponding actions the US might offer in return.
Privately, the President’s advisers believe more concrete progress – beyond a series of friendly handshakes – will be necessary during this summit to prove the diplomacy is working. Trump, meanwhile, has touted his warm relationship with Kim as progress in itself, and brandished the glowing letters he’s received from Kim in meetings with hostile lawmakers.
Washington has even made known to foreign governments Trump’s desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump said last week that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had nominated him for the award, something Abe refused himself to confirm or deny.
Trump said on Tuesday he’s in “no rush whatsoever” to speed up the denuclearization process. Instead, he pointed again to the easing of tensions.
“Now it’s far less dangerous and it’s a lot of sanity, a lot of really sane thinking,” Trump said.
White House deputy chief of staff for operations Daniel Walsh arrived in Hanoi several days ago to begin preparations for the summit with his North Korean counterpart. Walsh, who assumed the post previously held by longtime White House hand Joe Hagin, will coordinate the specific choreography and setting for the summit.
Hagin performed the same, at times arduous, task in Singapore for Trump’s first summit with Kim. Back then, he faced significant hurdles, including no-shows by the North Korean delegation to planned meetings and demands about Kim’s security detail, some of which raised concerns with the Secret Service.
Ultimately, Trump was thrilled with the look and feel of his hours-long meeting with Kim in Singapore, which was planned down the most minute detail – including internal White House illustrations of all the different camera angles of the leaders’ initial handshake.
This time, security concerns from the North Koreans endure. One possible summit location, a cavernous, newly built convention center, was opposed because Kim’s envoys deemed it difficult to secure, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Other sites that have been surveyed by advance teams include the French colonial Hanoi Opera House and various luxury hotels, the people said.
The US and North Korea have already been at odds over some summit details. The US had originally favored the resort city Da Nang for the meeting, but Pyongyang pushed for Hanoi, where North Korea has an embassy.
Ultimately, the capital Hanoi won out – providing Kim an opportunity not only to meet Trump but also to burnish his diplomatic credentials with the communist Vietnamese government. American officials hope Vietnam – once a US foe but now a strategic and trade ally – can serve as a model for transforming North Korea’s economy.
That was a message Trump also sought to relay – albeit less subtly – in Singapore, when he showed Kim a faux movie trailer on an iPad that offered a stark choice between nuclear isolation or a peaceful emergence into economic prosperity.
“That was a version of what could happen, what could take place,” Trump explained to reporters later. “As an example, they have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo behind?’ “
“He looked at that tape, he looked at that iPad, and I’m telling you they really enjoyed it,” Trump said.