Long-awaited nuclear negotiations between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were underway in Vietnam on Thursday morning, after a whirlwind day on Capitol Hill that threatened to steal the spotlight from the second historic summit between the two leaders.
“I just want to say: I have great respect for Chairman Kim, and I have great respect for his country,” Trump told reporters as he sat at a table across from Kim in Hanoi. “And I believe it will be something — hard to compete with for other countries. It has such potential.”
Trump told reporters at the site of the meeting, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, that “a lot of great ideas” are “being thrown about.” He said that “when you have a good relationship, a lot of good things happen.”
Kim, for his part, said the “whole world” was watching the talks and suggested that, for some, the image of the two “sitting side by side” must resemble “a fantasy movie.”
Trump added that while reaching a lasting agreement was critical, “speed is not important.” The two leaders then retired to begin their negotiations privately, but were photographed shortly afterwards walking on the Metropole hotel’s pool patio, where they were joined by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean official Kim Yong Chol.
The group then went into a glass-enclosed area and sat down around a table for more talks.
Trump, Kim and their aides were in Hanoi after long journeys by plane, train and automobile — Trump on Air Force One, Kim in an armored railcar and limousine — for two days of talks addressing perhaps the world’s biggest security challenge: Kim’s nuclear program, which stands on the verge of realistically threatening targets around the planet.
The White House has promised an aggressive approach in Thursday’s pivotal discussions, while also keeping intact the relationship that Trump administration officials say Trump has carefully cultivated with Kim.
Speaking to “Fox News Sunday,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the “previous administration’s policy was to allow the North Koreans to test [nuclear weapons], pray they’d stop, and then cower when they threatened us.”
Pompeo told anchor Chris Wallace, “Test, pray, and cower — that’s been upended by President Trump.”
Asked by reporters early Thursday if he had any reaction to the explosive public testimony on Capitol Hill by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, the president shook his head and didn’t respond.
Trump’s focus, instead, was apparently on the goals he laid out before departing for Hanoi: “We want denuclearization, and I think he’ll have a country that will set a lot of records for speed in terms of an economy.”
Although many experts are skeptical that Kim will give up the nuclear weapons he likely sees as his best guarantee of continued rule, there was a palpable, carnival-like excitement among many in Hanoi as final preparations were made for Wednesday’s summit opening. There were also huge traffic jams in the already congested streets.
Soldiers, police and international journalists thronged the streets outside Kim’s hotel, and hundreds of eager citizens stood behind barricades hoping to see the North Korean leader. As flags from the three countries fluttered in a chilly drizzle, dozens of cameras flashed and some citizens screamed and used their mobile phones to capture Kim’s arrival.
Already, some intrigue has swirled around the first talks between the two leaders. Only four other ears on the planet heard what Trump and Kim said to each other Wednesday during a brief, initial one-on-one chat that began their second nuclear summit. The two leaders’ interpreters were the only others privy to their conversation.
Trump’s translator in Wednesday’s private chat was Yun-hyang Lee, the U.S. State Department’s division chief for interpreting services, who also translated for the president at his first meeting with Kim last year in Singapore. The White House identified Kim’s translator as Sin Hye Yong.
Some experts on past U.S.-North Korean diplomatic efforts worry the private sit-downs give Kim an opportunity to win concessions from Trump that working-level officials would have advised him not to offer.
Before the summit, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he thought Kim requested the private meeting with hopes that he could “elicit concessions from President Trump that might not otherwise be possible if it was just our diplomats talking one-on-one.”
Others said they think there’s nothing wrong with the president’s penchant for one-on-one meetings with world leaders.
“I don’t find that they’re nefarious,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis with the Defense Priorities think tank, which advocates against overusing military action to solve foreign policy challenges.
“I think he’s just more comfortable doing it that way,” Davis told reporters at a summit briefing.
Davis pointed to President Richard Nixon’s many private confabs with Chinese leaders when he reopened relations with China in the 1970s.
Last year, at the Singapore summit, Trump caught U.S. ally South Korea off guard by announcing the suspension of major U.S. military exercises with the South. Trump critics said he squandered critical U.S. leverage before the North had taken any concrete steps toward denuclearization.
It was widely presumed that Trump made the decision during his private talks with Kim — his description of the war games as “very provocative” seemed to be in line with North Korea’s view of the drills as rehearsals for invasions. Both Washington and Seoul have insisted for years that the exercises were routine and defensive in nature.
Bong Young-shik, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University, was less worried, saying that the criticism Trump faced in Singapore could make him less likely to make huge, impulsive decisions during his private meetings with Kim this time around.
“There’s always a certain level of risk in this kind of meeting, but it’s hard to say Trump will be dragged into a decision by Kim just because of what happened in Singapore,” Bong said.
Former President Barack Obama was known to occasionally hold impromptu chats with leaders on the sidelines of major global summits with only their interpreters at their sides.
At former President Ronald Reagan’s first meeting with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, the two men met alone with only trusted interpreters. Only 15 minutes had been allotted for the discussion, but it went on for an hour.
Fox News’ John Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.