Kim Jong-un departed Pyongyang at the weekend on his executive train heading for Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, for the second round of talks with Donald Trump, which begin on Wednesday.
I discussed the Kim family’s specific preference for train travel to diplomatic meetings in an article for The Independent in April last year.
After years of diplomatic tensions, that landmark meeting in Singapore in June 2018 paved the way for more meaningful dialogue than the rocket man/Yankee imperial/barking like a scared dog, tit-for-tat slanging match that dominated proceedings before.
So what can we expect from the summit in Hanoi?
As with most summit meetings in the digital age, much of the legwork has already been done behind the scenes before the leaders meet in front of the cameras this week. That leaves them time to engage in more of the pomp and pageantry of the occasion.
When the two leaders met in June 2018, Kim’s symbolic selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan was talked about as much as anything else. Indeed, the document that Kim and Trump signed in Singapore did not take the negotiations forward a great deal. Trump committed to providing security guarantees for North Korea and Kim reaffirmed his commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Nevertheless, the Singapore agreement provided a basic platform from which more detailed discussions on the topics of interest to both parties can begin.
First of all, the Kim family will want assurances that they will not be next in the firing line of the sort of regime change tactics the US has been engaging in with Venezuela.
Secondly, Kim’s governance of North Korea continues to rely on him being able to restrict goods, migration, and information. The development of the country’s nuclear capacity has primarily been motivated to ward off imperialist invaders and preserve the isolated “purity” of North Korea’s existence. The North Koreans want that to stay the way it is — and they won’t commit to denuclearisation if those conditions aren’t met.
As for the US, their aims are much the same as they have been since the Korean peninsula split into North and South Korea after the Second World War. They want to gain access to new markets for US investments, products and services, and to be able to explore and ultimately exploit the natural resources found within the North Korean territory.
The US understands that its “democracy” and “freedom” rhetoric — a key part of America’s international propaganda — helps to meet these imperial goals. This is the capitalist imperative that dominates American political decision-making and is the primary reason why the Kim family have been personas non gratas for so long when the US has endorsed, defended and encouraged authoritarian regimes elsewhere.
It’s a delicate balance to strike. Allowing too much outside influence increases the possibility of anti-Kim unrest in North Korea as a result of the citizens’ likely exposure to counter-narratives. And the US understands that getting a stronger foothold in North Korea will come off the back of its commitment to reducing its military presence in East Asia. The Hanoi summit is likely to be the first of cautious baby steps towards an agreement. However, it may end up that the bottom lines of both sides are incompatible with one another and little to no progress can be made.
A final point of interest surrounds whether Trump will visit Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi (known colloquially as the “Hanoi Hilton”) where American prisoners of war were held captive 50 years ago during the Vietnam War.
Hoa Lo’s museum is a frequent stop for western tourists visiting the city, where photos of the recently deceased Republican former Senator John McCain fill the walls after he spent five and a half years there following being shot down and seriously injured during a bombing run in 1967. In his campaign for the presidency, Trump infamously attempted to denigrate McCain, his war record and his use of it for political purposes, saying, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump, perhaps innocuously, made a valid point about how societies honour some military veterans while not others and the wider notion of the grotesque romanticising of war for political ends. However, whether he will pay homage to those POWs, or indeed make any reference at all to US actions in Vietnam half a century ago, remains to be seen.
Dr Colin Alexander is a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University