U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un projected optimism Wednesday as they opened high-stakes talks about curbing Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, a problem that has bedeviled generations of leaders.
The second summit between Trump and Kim came against the backdrop of the American president’s domestic troubles. As the leaders dined on steak and chocolate cake, Trump’s former personal attorney was readying explosive congressional testimony claiming the president is a “conman” who lied abut his business interests with Russia.
The turmoil in Washington has escalated concerns that Trump, eager for an agreement, would give Kim too much and get too little in return. The leaders’ first meeting in June was heavy with historic pageantry but light on any enforceable agreements for North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. Still, both offered optimistic words before dinner.
“A lot of things are going to be solved I hope,” Trump said as dinner began. “I think it will lead to a wonderful, really a wonderful situation long-term.”
Kim said his country had long been “misunderstood” and viewed with “distrust.”
“There have been efforts, whether out of hostility or not, to block the path that we intend to take,” he said. “But we have overcome all these and walked toward each other again and we’ve now reached Hanoi after 261 days” since their first meeting in Singapore.
“We have met again here and I am confident that we can achieve great results that everyone welcomes,” he added.
The leaders’ formal talks continue Thursday. Possible outcomes could include a peace declaration for the Korean War that the North could use to eventually push for the reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, or sanctions relief that could allow Pyongyang to pursue lucrative economic projects with the South.
Skeptics say such agreements would leave in place a significant portion of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles while robbing the United States of its negotiating leverage going forward.
Asked if this summit would yield a political declaration to end the Korean War, Trump told reporters: “We’ll see.”
Trump’s schedule for Thursday promised a “joint agreement signing ceremony” after their meetings conclude.
The two leaders were joined for dinner by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Kim Yong Chol, a former military spy chief and Kim’s point man in negotiations, and North Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Ri Yong Ho. Interpreters for each side also attended.
Trump did not answer a question from a reporter about his former attorney Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony. Shortly after, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders excluded some U.S. reporters, including the reporter from The Associated Press who asked the president about Cohen, from covering Trump and Kim’s dinner.
“Due to the sensitive nature of the meetings we have limited the pool for the dinner to a smaller group,” she said in a statement.
Still, Trump was unable to ignore the drama playing out thousands of miles away, tweeting that Cohen “did bad things unrelated to Trump” and “is lying in order to reduce his prison time.”
Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for lying to Congress.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close White House ally, said the Cohen hearing was evidence that “Democrats’ hatred of Trump is undercutting an important foreign policy effort and is way out of line.”
Anticipation for what could be accomplished at the summit ran high in Hanoi, and there were cheers and gasps as Trump’s motorcade barreled through this bustling city. Crowds three or four deep lined the streets and jockeyed to capture his procession with their mobile phones.
The carnival-like atmosphere in the Vietnamese capital, with street artists painting likenesses of the leaders and vendors hawking T-shirts showing Kim waving and Trump giving a thumbs-up, contrasted with the serious items on their agenda: North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump has been trying to convince Kim that his nation could thrive economically like the host country, Vietnam, if he would end his nuclear weapons program.
“I think that your country has tremendous economic potential — unbelievable, unlimited,” Trump said. “I think that you will have a tremendous future with your country — a great leader — and I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen.”
The summit venue, the colonial and neoclassical Sofitel Legend Metropole in the old part of Hanoi, came with its own dose of history: Trump was trying to talk Kim into giving up his nuclear arsenal at a hotel with a bomb shelter that protected the likes of actress Jane Fonda and singer Joan Baez from American air raids during the Vietnam War.
After their first summit, where Trump and Kim signed a joint statement agreeing to work toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the president prematurely declared victory, tweeting that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” The facts did not support that claim.
North Korea has spent decades, at great economic sacrifice, building its nuclear program, and there are doubts that it will give away that program without getting something substantial from the U.S.
The Korean conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice, essentially a cease-fire signed by North Korea, China and the 17-nation, U.S.-led United Nations Command. A peace declaration would amount to a political statement, ostensibly teeing up talks for a formal peace treaty that would involve other nations.
North and South Korea also want U.S. sanctions dialed back so they can resurrect two major symbols of rapprochement that provided $150 million a year to the impoverished North by some estimates: a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong and South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort.