Day one of the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has thus far proven to be less crazed than the first summit between the two men in Singapore last year, but the takeaways might be just as vague.
The two leaders met for 20 minutes before having dinner on Wednesday. They were joined by their respective entourages, which, for President Trump, included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
The Hanoi summit, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, is centered on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief.
After Trump and Kim met in Singapore last June, North Korea agreed to freeze nuclear testing, partially dismantle one testing site, and release three American prisoners. Kim will likely seek reciprocal steps in Hanoi on Thursday. There has yet to be an agreement on regular international inspections of North Korean facilities.
The Trump administration has been trying to temper expectations for the summit. Senior officials told the media last week that they weren’t even sure how North Korea defined denuclearization, and that they couldn’t confirm if the president’s advisers — notably, North Korea Special Representative Stephen Biegun — would be in the room during negotiations.
The president himself also moved the goalposts over the weekend, tweeting that what is “most” important is that North Korea not test any nuclear weapons. This is a huge leap back from April, when he claimed that North Korea will close its nuclear sites.
Trump reversed course again on Wednesday morning, tweeting from Hanoi:
All false reporting (guessing) on my intentions with respect to North Korea. Kim Jong Un and I will try very hard to work something out on Denuclearization & then making North Korea an Economic Powerhouse. I believe that China, Russia, Japan & South Korea will be very helpful!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2019
When asked by reporters in Hanoi if he was committed to a peace declaration to end the Korean War — not to be confused with an actual agreement, which would have to be negotiated with South Korea — Trump simply responded, “We’ll see.”
The summit at Hanoi is an opportunity for Trump to produce the sorts of tangible deliverables he has thus far failed to nail down.
It’s also his chance to put as much distance between himself and the sensational testimony that is expected from his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, before Congress on Wednesday. Trump plans to stay up overnight in Hanoi to watch the hearing.
“Diplomatic negotiations are critical for resolving some of the United State’s most pressing national security threats. But what we have seen so far raises legitimate questions about the president’s true intentions for this summit. Is his goal to reduce the risks to American families of a nuclear-armed North Korea — or merely to distract from his challenges at home?” said Andrew Albertson, the executive director of Foreign Policy for America, in a statement.
The first summit between Trump and Kim, held in Singapore last June, yielded little more than a commitment to meet again. There were no advisers in the room, nor are there any transcripts of the meeting — or so the public (and lawmakers) have been told.
Trump came back claiming that North Korea was no longer a threat, but found out the hard way that this was not the case: Satellite images showed North Korea continued to improve its nuclear facilities. Pyongyang also continued to amass fissile materials while bitterly rebuking the Trump administration’s negotiating style.
U.S. intelligence has concluded that Pyongyang is unlikely to totally give up its nuclear weapons. On Sunday, Pompeo told CNN that North Korea is indeed still a threat, and that the president never intended to say that it wasn’t.
Trump abruptly canceled the second round of talks at the last minute last year, apparently catching diplomats off guard. Talks resumed in the fall when Biegun assumed the job.