WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27 and 28, the latest sign of thawing tensions between two leaders who had once publicly traded insults and threats of military confrontation.
Trump announced the meeting during the State of the Union, saying it was part of “a bold new diplomacy” that he said has already yielded tangible results.
“Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months,” Trump said in Tuesday’s speech. “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.”
That claim drew skepticism from Democrats in the House chamber and from North Korea experts on Twitter.
“Ok let’s be clear that North Korea’s successful acquisition of a nuclear ICBM is why there was no war with North Korea,” tweeted Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT who studies North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
The last nuclear test North Korea conducted was in September 2017. The regime also launched an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. Some experts say the regime no longer needs to conduct such tests because of advances in its nuclear weapons program.
The summit comes less than a year after the two held a historic meeting in Singapore. Since then, Trump has claimed the country is no longer a nuclear threat, but independent analysts have sharply questioned that assessment.
Vietnam, which has diplomatic ties with both Washington and Pyongyang, offers advantages for both leaders. Vietnam is an easy flight for Kim’s shorter-range aircraft and, for Trump, it offers a symbolic nod to a communist country that has improved relations with the U.S. since the end of the Vietnam War.
Trump said last week that he may meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of the summit as the U.S. and China are working to head off an escalating trade war.
Pointing to an end of nuclear missile tests, Trump has placed North Korea at the top of his foreign policy achievements. Trump and Kim have traded letters, and the president has repeatedly said he has a “very good relationship” with the reclusive leader.
“Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one,” Trump said Tuesday night.
More: Read President Trump’s full State of the Union address
Analysts have questioned the decision to hold a second summit, arguing Trump should demand concrete steps toward denuclearization from North Korea – the original U.S. goal – before agreeing to another meeting. Trump unexpectedly announced at the first summit that the U.S. would suspend joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea.
Trump’s special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said last week the U.S. and North Korea would hold working-level negotiations in advance of the summit aimed at agreeing on concrete “deliverables” for that meeting.
But in remarks at Stanford University, Biegun conceded North Korea has not yet provided the U.S. with an inventory of its nuclear arsenal, a step that many experts see as a vital first move toward any denuclearization agreement.
Biegun also conceded the U.S. and North Korea have “no detailed definition or shared agreement on what denuclearization entails.”
Trump and Kim signed a vaguely worded agreement at their first summit in Singapore pledging to work toward full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Members of Trump’s administration, meanwhile, acknowledge North Korea is still developing a nuclear weapons program and U.S. sanctions on the country remain in place.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers last week that “North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities, and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” Coats said that the U.S. intelligence has observed “some activity that is inconsistent with full denuclearization.”
Coats also said that North Korea “has halted its provocative behavior” by refraining from missile tests and nuclear tests for more than a year.
Biegun said Trump is ready to declare an end to the Korean War.
“It’s over. It’s done. We are not going to invade North Korea,” Biegun said. “We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime.”
He described the U.S approach as moving away from the question of “who’s going to act first” and toward ways to move in tandem. Biegun said there was no contradiction between the U.S. intelligence assessment of North Korea and Trump’s statements about denuclearization negotiations.
“North Korea has given us little indication that they have yet made the decision to completely dismantle and destroy that capability. We all know that,” he said.
The negotiations between Trump and Kim, he said, are designed to see if Kim can be persuaded to “make a different set of choices.”
Biegun is scheduled to travel to Pyongyang on Wednesday to meet with his North Korean counterpart and prepare for the second summit.