On an overcast and damp morning, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un arrived today (February 26) in Hanoi ahead of his highly anticipated second summit meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Central Hanoi’s streets were eerily quiet around the Melia Hotel where Kim will stay. The hotel is opposite the Government Guesthouse where the two leaders will meet on Wednesday and talks will wrap up on Thursday.
Crowds of journalists and onlookers gathered behind well-cordoned off zones as Kim arrived by motorcade from the China-Vietnam border, after spending several days traveling through China by train.
“I’m so happy I saw him,” said one Vietnamese onlooker, who later admitted she actually only saw his car drive past.
Kim’s trip through China allowed him to stop-off at several Chinese cities and reaffirm North Korea’s close ties to the Beijing government before meeting with America’s leader.
In Hanoi, the city’s lampposts are festooned with a limp triumvirate of flags: North Korea, Vietnam and America. All former enemies at one point, either militaristically or geopolitically, and all boasting distinctly different political systems.
Trump, by comparison, preferred a swifter route, traveling by plane. He is expected to arrive in the Vietnamese capital in the evening of the 26th. Both nations’ negotiators and staff arrived days earlier to prepare for the historic event.
Kim is expected to meet with Vietnamese officials since his stay in Hanoi is also being classified as a state visit, his first ever to Vietnam. But it is unclear whether discussions will be fruitful considering Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, who is also state president, is away on a state visit to Cambodia until February 27
Trump is also predicted at some point this week to hold talks with senior officials from Vietnam, now one of the US’ main allies in the Asia-Pacific. Twenty-five years ago this month, America lifted its two decades-old trade embargo on Vietnam. Last year, bilateral trade was worth more than US$54 billion.
Despite the arrival of the two world leaders, events were sparse on the day before the summit. At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, members of the Women Cross DMZ, an international group of women activists, spoke about its efforts to press for a peace agreement on the Korean peninsula.
The US and North Korea are still officially at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not peace treaty.
Christine Ahn, the group’s founder and executive director, said that the stars seem aligned for an actual peace resolution to be reached this week. Her organization and other women’s groups formally called on Trump and Kim in a joint letter to formalize relations and officially end to the war.
She also announced that a group of US Congress representatives will introduce a bill on February 26 in Washington calling on the US government to officially declare an end to the Korean War.
While the 3,000 or so journalists expected to cover the event, as well as hundreds of foreign diplomats, eagerly wait for the summit to begin, the mood of ordinary Hanoi residents is less sanguine.
A wizened owner of a local coffee shop offered no more than a shrug when asked his opinion on the summit. Road-sweepers have been busy in recent days, while gardeners were hard at work this weekend laying new flower beds and lawns.
Tuan, who had just finished a guided tour of the city for Chinese visitors, said that he noticed an increase in tourist numbers this week, and that there is particular interest in the summit among Chinese travelers.
Linh, the owner of one of Hanoi’s many small shops that normally sell tacky souvenirs and communist propaganda posters, has certainly taken advantage of the summit to introduce a new line of commemorative merchandise of t-shirts and plates emblazoned with Trump and Kim’s images.
She says tourists and locals alike have been eager to buy her merchandise. “It’s good Hanoi [hosts] the summit. I am proud. And it’s good for business,” she adds.
A barbershop in Hanoi, meanwhile, gained international attention last week after it started offering customers Trump and Kim-styled haircuts.
The city’s authorities are clearly leveraging the summit to boost Hanoi’s tourism potential, as Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instructed them to do last week. Numerous local firms selling everything from insurance to coffee have set up stalls at the International Media Center, situated in the refurbished Vietnam-Soviet Friendship Cultural Palace.
The center’s vast screens have shown little else than infomercials on Vietnamese tourism and food in the days leading up to the summit.
Vietnam’s state-run media also appear to have been tasked with filing lionizing articles about the arrival of thousands of journalists, a rarity in Vietnam’s highly repressive atmosphere, where independent journalism is heavily curtailed.
On the streets, other businesses have eyed the marketing potential and fashioned banners lauding Hanoi as a “Partnership for Sustainable Peace” or a “city for peace” – a title UNESCO bestowed on Hanoi some 20 years ago.
Government authorities have also been keen to offer a more hands-off appearance, aware that the eyes of the world will be watching their actions, which are already under international scrutiny as Vietnam’s dismal human rights record has been called into question by several foreign governments.
“Security will be at the maximum level,” Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Hoai Trung told reporters at a press conference this weekend, though officials say that they have only been given ten days to prepare security as Hanoi’s choice as the host city was only confirmed earlier this month.
Singapore, which hosted the previous US-North Korea last year, was in comparison given almost two months to prepare.
The US is keen to portray Vietnam, whose economy has been growing at one of the fastest rates in the world in recent years, as a model for North Korea to replicate.
The message is that, just like Vietnam, North Korea could experience rapid economic growth while maintaining its rigid one-party system and tyrannical control over society if it drops its pariah status and integrates with the global order.
True to form, Vietnam has shown that it will brook no dissent during the summit, restrictions that would make North Korean leader Kim feel at home and perhaps also appeal to Trump.
On February 24, a well-known Kim Jong-un impersonator, Howard X, was questioned by police and told he would be deported after holding a mock meeting with Trump impersonator Russell White in front of local media in Hanoi.
The pair of lookalikes were freely allowed to perform a similar stunt at the previous peace talks last year in Singapore. “Satire is a powerful weapon against any dictatorship. They are scared of a couple of guys that look like the real thing,” Howard X, the impersonator, told journalists after his arrest.
Well-known Vietnamese human rights activists, meanwhile, say they have been warned to stay quiet during the summit, similar to the warnings they have received by authorities before previous major international events held in Vietnam.