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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A planned upcoming summit between the U.S. and North Korea will take place over two days in Vietnam at the end of the month, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday.
Speaking in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, Trump hailed recent progress in diplomacy with North Korea and reiterated his claim that the two countries would be at war were it not for his presidency.
“Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one,” he continued. “Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam.”
The President’s speech Tuesday cast a markedly different tone from last year’s on the North Korean issue.
January 2018 saw Trump use the address to condemn North Korea as “depraved” and “cruel,” and tout his administration’s policy of maximum pressure on the DPRK.
He also invited Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector, to the speech, describing his story as “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
This year, however, the President devoted only a few lines to ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang and praise for the DPRK leadership.
“If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he said.
Committing to “continue our historic push for peace on the Korean peninsula,” the U.S. President praised North Korea’s decision last year to return three American prisoners and bring an end to nuclear and missile testing.
The summit will be the second between a sitting U.S. President and a North Korean leader, and will come less than a year after the two men met in Singapore on June 12.
The State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun landed in Pyongyang just hours before the State of the Union in order to discuss the next steps in the coming weeks, as it remains unclear what may be announced prior to the Vietnam summit or what tangible achievements the Trump administration expects to take home from the next meeting with Kim Jong Un.
“At some point very soon, Washington and Seoul will need to agree on a comprehensive denuclearization-peace roadmap with timetables if they want a truly historic deal,” Duyeon Kim, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told NK News.
“At the least, they should agree on destroying Pyongyang’s fissile material production program located anywhere in North Korea, not just the Yongbyon nuclear complex,” she said.
“The best outcome of course is to eventually agree on how to destroy all nuclear and missile programs in exchange for new relations, economic prosperity, and a peace regime.”
Regarding the decision to hold the summit in Vietnam, one expert said it was likely motivated by both logistical and political concerns.
“North Korea has the capability to fire a ballistic missile over 13,000 km, but doesn’t have a passenger jet that can fly over 5000 km,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Speaking to NK News, Lee suggested that “Kim Jong Un could borrow a plane from China again as he did when he flew to Singapore in June 2018, but probably prefers to fly in his own plane.”
The move is also driven by the U.S. desire, Lee continued, “to sell the message to Pyongyang that it, too, like Vietnam, can remain under a single party Communist dictatorship and get richer.”
Geoffrey See, founder of the Choson Exchange NGO, agreed that the location could serve as a useful example for Pyongyang.
“We believe that Vietnam’s experience repairing relationships with the US, developing its economy, encouraging entrepreneurship and the success of its female-led businesses are highly relevant to the DPRK,” See told NK News.
“These are areas that we have conducted training in the DPRK, and see significant lessons in Vietnam’s trajectory that can accelerate the process of economic development and gender equality in the DPRK,” he said.
See added that his organization has helped bring Vietnamese experts to the DPRK to train locals over ten trips since 2011, and since 2014 helped bring North Korean delegations to the Vietnamese cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Halong Bay “to learn from Vietnam’s development experience.”
Hoo Chiew Ping, a Senior Lecturer at National University of Malaysia (UKM), is also connecting the location to North Korea’s potential for economic development, but suggested that Vietnam, too, may be eyeing the benefits of the spotlight.
Through hosting the next Trump-Kim meeting, Vietnam “may earn the type of international recognition that Singapore has achieved” since last June, and be “promoted as the ideal model for DPRK to emulate to achieve Kim Jong Un’s strategic line of economic development,” Hoo said.
Also pointing to Trump’s still-vague announcement of only the country Vietnam and not a specific city for the summit’s location, Hoo believes the coastal city Danang would be a superior choice to the capital Hanoi – a “nightmare for security.”
A source familiar with ongoing discussions between the U.S. and North Korea told NK News ahead of the State of the Union that the meeting will indeed take place in Danang.
Featured image: White House screenshot