HANOI — President Trump opened two days of summits Wednesday by offering a public embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, referring to the brutal authoritarian ruler as “my friend” and holding up Vietnam as a model for economic growth for Kim’s nation if he pursues steps to denuclearize.
Ahead of meetings with Vietnamese officials, Trump on Twitter praised this Southeast Asian nation as “thriving like few places on earth” and said the North has a chance to do the same “very quickly.”
“The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un,” Trump wrote. “We will know fairly soon — Very Interesting!”
Trump’s overture to Kim came hours before they were scheduled to meet for the first of two days of meetings, including a social dinner Wednesday evening at the luxurious, five-star Metropole hotel in Vietnam’s capital city. White House aides have said the president is determined to sell Kim on a vision of modernization and present him with a choice between continued global isolation and burgeoning economic growth if he gives up the North’s nuclear weapons program.
In brief remarks with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong, Trump said he marveled at the construction during his drive into Hanoi after landing at the airport late Tuesday.
“Vietnam is thriving,” said Trump, who signed a bilateral trade deal with Vietnam to purchase U.S.-made plane engines and other equiptment and services. “And very importantly we have a very big dinner tonight and meetings wit Chairman Kim. We both felt very good about having this very important summit in Vietnam because you really are an example of what can happen with good thinking.”
Yet if Trump aimed to show he was focused on his high-stakes summit with Kim, he appeared to undermine that shortly after wrapping up the meetings with the Vietnamese. Retiring to his hotel for several hours of downtime before his dinner with Kim, Trump unleashed a Twitter broadside on Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), mocking him as he has before over questionable statements he has made about his military service.
“I have now spent more time in Vietnam than Da Nang Dick Blumenthal, the third rate Senate from Connecticut (how is Connecticut doing?),” Trump wrote. “His war stories of his heroism in Vietnam were a total fraud — he was never even there. We talked about it today with Vietnamese leaders!”
A readout from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders of Trump’s meetings with the Vietnamese made no mention of them discussing Blumenthal. And Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is scheduled to tell Congress on Wednesday that Trump told him he claimed to have a bone spur that won him a deferment from the Vietnam War but that Trump provided no evidence of having had a medical problem and privately told him he never had surgery.
Trump’s Twitter attack raised a question over how rigorously he was preparing for the meetings with Kim.
Trump made his economic pitch to Kim during their first summit in Singapore last summer, showing him a four-minute video produced by the White House that interspersed images with war and destruction with gleaming hyper-modern cityscapes. Kim, in his mid-30s, has said in public addresses that he is focused on improving the North Korean economy, which has suffered under decades of international economic sanctions for the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs — and the regime’s corrupt governance.
Analysts have said Trump’s strategy is risky given that U.S. intelligence officials have said Kim is unlikely to surrender an arsenal that is thought to include an estimated 65 nuclear warheads. Although Trump has pointed to a moratorium on testing that has been in place since November 2017, U.S. intelligence has discovered evidence that the North has sought to conceal its weapons programs despite publicly engaging with the United States and South Korea in denuclearization talks.
Trump administration officials, led by the State Department, have worked over the past two weeks to try to nail down specific commitments from Pyongyang to advance the process, but progress has been slow, according to U.S. and South Korean officials familiar with the talks.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in a statement called last year’s Trump-Kim summit a “complete disaster” and discounted the North’s testing moratorium as a meaningful step forward.
“A temporary pause of nuclear and missile tests is not the metric for whether North Korea is changing its behavior,” Murphy said. “Nor is an agreement to dismantle facilities they no longer need. North Korea has a long history of pretending to comply in order to get what it wants — giving just enough to get something important in return, but never actually walking back its nuclear program.”
Murphy also criticized Trump for lavishing “syrupy praise” on Kim, whose regime, like those of his father and grandfather, has imposed a brutal rule on the public, with more than 100,000 citizens held in hard labor camps. In 2017, as he sought to rally international pressure on the North, Trump had denounced the North as a “hell no person deserves,” but he has touted a personal rapport with Kim since their first summit.
In another tweet Wednesday morning, Trump responded to the criticism of his strategy.
“The Democrats should stop talking about what I should do with North Korea and ask themselves instead why they didn’t do ‘it’ during eight years of the Obama Administration?” Trump wrote.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency ran three stories Wednesday on Kim’s arrival in Vietnam and activities in Hanoi as he prepares for the summit.
KCNA said the “supreme leader” would meet Trump for their “historic” second summit on Wednesday and Thursday, and would then pay an official goodwill visit to Vietnam on Friday and Saturday.
Kim visited the embassy of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in Hanoi Tuesday, where KCNA said he told staff to consolidate the deep-rooted friendly relations between the two communist parties and countries. “He also learnt in detail about the life of members of the embassy and their families,” KCNA reported. “He gave them a warm pep talk wishing them well with their work in good health in the future, too and had a photo session with them.”
But KCNA’s most significant report was its brief account of Kim receiving a report on the activities of the working delegation to the summit.
“At Melia Hotel, supreme leader listened to the detailed report on the contact between the working delegations dispatched by the DPRK and the U.S. to Hanoi for the successful second DPRK-U.S. summit talks,” it wrote.
It showed a photograph of Kim sitting around a table in a hotel room with four officials: Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, as well as Kim Song Hye, who is head of strategy at the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Kim Hyok Chol, who has been leading the pre-summit negotiations with his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Biegun.
Kim was smoking and had a clipboard on the table in front of him, while the two men and two women were shown listening intently and taking notes.
Experts said the KCNA report was significant, in that it implicitly acknowledged this to be a normal negotiating process and showed Kim invested in making the summit a success.