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N Korea at crossroads

Vietnam vows to make Trump-Kim summit a success

Venue chosen for its neutrality, history and security merits

Honour guards march at a flag raising ceremony at Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi.    © Reuters

DANANG, Vietnam/WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- After U.S. President Donald Trump made public that his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam, the host country welcomed the decision and expressed its commitment to making the meeting a success.

"Vietnam strongly supports dialogues to maintain peace, security and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Le Thi Thu Hang, the spokeswoman for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Wednesday in a statement reported by the Xinhua News Agency.

"Vietnam is ready to make active contribution to and cooperate with relevant sides to ensure the success for the second U.S.-DPRK summit, thus helping realize the above-mentioned goal," she said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The country was likely chosen for its neutrality. North Korea has an embassy in Hanoi, and has traditionally had friendly relations with Vietnam. The U.S., meanwhile, has made efforts to improve relations since the end of the Vietnam War.

While the city of the summit has yet to be announced, the central Vietnamese city of Danang, which hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting in 2017, is widely seen as the strongest candidate. It has broad roads and multiple luxury hotels along the coastline. "It's a convenient location for VIPs to gather," a source close to the Vietnamese Communist Party said.

Danang was "a fierce battleground during the Vietnam War, but has since grown into an iconic resort city," said Atsuhito Isozaki, an associate professor at Tokyo's Keio University specializing in North Korean studies. Given Kim's effort to make the North's eastern city of Wonsan into a resort destination, Danang "could be an encouraging gesture toward Pyongyang by the U.S. government," Isozaki said.

The central Vietnamese city of Danang wants to be known for its white-sand beaches -- and as a quieter, slower-paced alternative to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo by Tomoya Onishi)

When Trump and Kim met in Singapore last June, the North Korean leader borrowed a Chinese plane for the flight instead of flying on his own plane, which is said to be old. Vietnam is closer to North Korea and gives Kim other means to travel, including by train.

On the logistics, Cheong Seong-chang of South Korea's Sejong Institute think tank pointed out that while last year's Singapore summit began at 9 a.m. and wrapped up shortly after 2 p.m., this month's two-day overnight schedule leaves "plenty of time to discuss denuclearization and frameworks for peace."

As preparations ramp up for the second summit, the U.S. is sending out signals that it may be willing to grant certain concessions in exchange for progress on stalled denuclearization talks.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, flew to Pyongyang from Osan Air Base in South Korea on Wednesday. He landed at about 10 a.m., Russia's Tass news agency reported, and is believed to have met with his recently appointed counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, to prepare for the leaders' summit.

"We are prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries," Biegun said on Jan. 31. While the U.S. previously rejected any concessions until the North made concrete progress toward denuclearization, his comment suggested a more flexible approach, even while maintaining sanctions on the North. Possibilities include a declaration formally ending the Korean War.

North Korea is looking to put a quick end to the sanctions that have squeezed its economy. It first wants to restart joint projects with South Korea, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, before gradually persuading the international community to ease the pressure.

"After seven months of stalemate, each side seems to have decided to give a bit more this time in negotiations," said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Meanwhile, China and South Korea have also welcomed the announcement of the Vietnam summit. China sees a chance to line up its own summit with Trump to defuse trade tensions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is eyeing direct talks with Trump shortly before or after the American president meets Kim at the end of this month. According to sources familiar with the matter, Xi has voiced his intent to contribute to solving issues on the peninsula through direct talks with Trump, while also seeking common ground on Sino-American trade frictions. 

But no date or location has yet been nailed down for a Trump-Xi summit, say people connected to China's ruling Communist Party. Such matters appear likely to be ironed out in mid-February cabinet-level talks in China with a team led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

A spokesman for South Korea's presidential Blue House, Kim Eui-kyeom, said Seoul hopes Washington and Pyongyang will take substantial and concrete steps forward in Vietnam, having made a move toward wiping their slate of historical conflicts clean at last year's Singapore summit.

Kim noted that Vietnam was now a friend to the U.S. despite having once brandished "swords and guns" against it, and expressed hope that Vietnam would be a "great stage" for the U.S. and the North to write new history.

Oki Nagai in Beijing and Kenichi Yamada in Seoul contributed to this report.

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