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Trump-Kim Summit

Kim Jong Un aide arrives in Vietnam for Trump summit prep

Slow pace of North Korean denuclearization feared, as US grows flexible on aid

Kim Chang Son, a close aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leaves the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi on Saturday.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/SEOUL/HANOI -- Ahead of Kim Jong Un's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi at the end of the month, the North Korean leader has sent a close aide to smooth the grounds for the second summit.

Kim Jong Un intends to arrive in Vietnam two days early, on Feb. 25, and he is due to meet with President Nguyen Phu Trong during his stay in the country, according to Reuters. Trong doubles as the general secretary of the Communist Party. With North Korea seen as modeling its economic policies after Vietnam, Kim will visit a manufacturing complex as well.

Kim Chang Son, who serves as Kim Jong Un's de facto chief of staff, landed in Hanoi on Saturday. He is expected to check the security of the venue, as well as coordinate arrangements with U.S. officials ahead of the Feb. 27-28 summit. Kim Chang Son, referred to as the autocrat's "butler" by some in the media, had arrived in Singapore about two weeks prior to the Trump-Kim summit last June.

American and North Korean officials look to restart working-level talks as soon as the beginning of the week. Washington has indicated that it would allow expanded humanitarian aid in return for tangible denuclearization efforts by Pyongyang.

The conciliatory approach is embodied by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. State Department's special representative for North Korea. During his recent visit to the country, the two sides presented lists of measures that could be agreed upon. The U.S. is said to have sought such tangible steps as inspections of the Yongbyon reactor, access to secret facilities and the dismantling of ballistic missiles. In sharp contrast, Biegun had previously demanded that Pyongyang first turn over a full list of its nuclear weapons.

Amid a familiar pattern of the North playing its cards slowly, concerns have grown in some quarters of the U.S. and allied countries about the Trump administration easing pressure. Should Washington soften its stance without a clear path to denuclearization, this could ultimately lead to the regime retaining possession of nuclear weapons and materials.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, said Friday it discovered a secret ballistic missile base in North Korea named Sangnam-ni, 250 km from the demilitarized zone. The center says the base carries Musudan intermediate-range missiles. Sangnam-ni is one of about 20 bases that Pyongyang has not declared, and is reportedly not included as a target for denuclearization.

Although Biegun maintains a tough line on sanctions, he has indicated an openness to expanded humanitarian aid.

"We say we will not lift sanctions until denuclearization is complete. That is correct," he said during a Jan. 31 speech. "We didn't say we won't do anything until you do everything."

The international community appears open to greater assistance for North Korea, as the U.N. Security Council is categorizing more items as humanitarian aid. The body can exempt materials from sanctions if governments and humanitarian groups apply to do so. The Security Council approved aid in 12 instances -- 10 in the past month alone.

On Jan. 31, the Security Council permitted the Swiss government to transport nearly $100,000 worth of supplies to the North. The items included 53 tons of galvanized iron wire for flood protection, as well as components for a solar pump drinking water supply system.

This level of assistance is unlikely to satisfy North Korea. The regime seeks the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex and the restart of tourism at Mount Kumgang, both examples of inter-Korean economic cooperation. North Korean officials had requested an easing of U.S. unilateral sanctions on finance and trade, according to an informed source. But many in the U.S. are wary of allowing North Korea an avenue to procure foreign currency.

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