February 23, 2019 / 9:31 PM / 7 months ago

North Korea's Kim on his way by train to summit with Trump in Vietnam

SEOUL/HANOI (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his way across China by train on Sunday, media reported, bound for a high-stakes second nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi.

Few details of Kim’s trip have been announced but he left Pyongyang by train on Saturday afternoon for the Feb. 27-28 summit accompanied by senior North Korean officials as well as his influential sister, North Korea’s state media reported.

Trump and Kim will meet in Hanoi eight months after their historic summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, where they pledged to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

With little progress since then, the two leaders are expected to focus on what elements of North Korea’s nuclear program it might begin to give up, in exchange for U.S. concessions.

In rare, revealing coverage of Kim’s travel, while it is still going on, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper featured photographs of him getting a red-carpet send-off in Pyongyang and waving from a train carriage door while holding a cigarette.

He was accompanied by top officials also involved in the Singapore summit, including Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief and Kim’s top envoy in negotiations with the United States, as well as senior party aide Ri Su Yong, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and defense chief No Kwang Chol.

The North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who acted as a close aide in Singapore, is again part of the delegation, the North’s KCNA news agency reported. It made no mention of his wife, Ri Sol Ju.

The extensive coverage in the secretive North’s official media was a contrast to the limited reporting that has traditionally prevailed during his foreign trips.

Other senior officials, such as his de facto chief of staff Kim Chang Son and Kim Hyok Chol, negotiations counterpart to U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun, were already in Hanoi to prepare for the summit.

With scant progress since the June summit, the two leaders are likely to try to build on their personal connection to push things forward in Hanoi, even if only incrementally, analysts said.

Both sides are under pressure to forge more specific agreements than were reached in Singapore, which critics, especially in the United States, said lacked detail.

“They will not make an agreement which breaks up the current flow of diplomacy. (President Trump) has mentioned that they’ll meet again; even if there is a low-level agreement, they will seek to keep things moving,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

LEARNING FROM VIETNAM

The Trump administration has pressed the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, which, combined with its missile capabilities, poses a threat to the United States, before it can expect any concessions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a train as he departs for a summit in Hanoi, in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 23, 2019. KCNA via REUTERS

North Korea wants an easing of punishing U.S.-led sanctions, security guarantees and a formal end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a treaty.

Few details of summit arrangements have been released.

Some lamp posts on Hanoi’s tree-lined streets are decked with North Korean, U.S. and Vietnamese flags fluttering above a handshake design, and security has been stepped up at locations that could be the summit venue, or where the leaders might stay.

It could take Kim at least 2-1/2 days to travel to Vietnam by train.

Some carriages of a green train were spotted at Beijing’s station on Sunday, but it was not confirmed it was Kim’s.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Kim’s train had passed through a station in China’s port city of Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, at around 1 p.m. (0500 GMT).

China has given no details of his trip. Its foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Two top North Korean officials who were not in Singapore but will be in Hanoi are Kim Phyong Hae and O Su Yong, vice chairmen of the party’s Central Committee, respectively in charge of personnel management and industrial affairs, KCNA reported.

Slideshow (9 Images)

O is a former minister of electronics and vice minister of metals and machine building. He might try to learn about Vietnam’s development of manufacturing, analysts said.

Kim Jong Un may tour some economic facilities while in Vietnam.

Vietnam, like North Korea, fought a war against the United States and keeps tight control over its people and economy. It has been touted as a model for North Korea’s development.

Vietnamese media reported that a North Korean cargo plane arrived on Sunday carrying personnel who appeared to be Kim’s security guards and state media workers. They were driven under police escort to a downtown hotel.

Reporting by Joyce Lee in SEOUL and Jack Kim in HANOI, Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Hyonhee Shin in HANOI and Hanoi bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel

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