North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s armored train chugged across China on Sunday as he headed on a 60-hour journey to his highly anticipated second summit with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam.
Emulating his late father and grandfather, who took epic train trips when they were leaders, Kim set off on the long journey from Pyongyang on Saturday, with a military honor guard seeing him off in the North Korean capital.
His departure from the Pyongyang railway station was confirmed by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency, with official photos showing him waving from the train.
The train crossed the border city of Dandong later that day, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency and the specialist outlet NK News, but its route remained a tightly-held secret.
The train’s crossing into China follows days of speculation over Kim’s travel plans, as his team gathered in Hanoi ahead of the talks expected next Wednesday and Thursday.
Accompanying the North Korean leader was right-hand man and top general Kim Yong Chol, who met with Trump in the White House last month, along with several other top dignitaries, KCNA said.
Security was tight before the train’s arrival in Dandong, with police cordoning off the border bridge area with tape and metal barriers, and leading an AFP journalist out of the area.
A hotel facing the bridge was closed for impromptu renovations on Saturday.
“The train is long and crossed the bridge slower than the tourist train, but it’s definitely him, there’s a lot of police presence,” an unidentified source told NK News.
Windows on the train were blacked out, the source said, with only headlights turned on as it crossed.
The train usually takes 13 hours to reach Beijing, but there were no signs of heightened security around the railway station, indicating that the train likely bypassed the Chinese capital on the nearly 4,000-kilometre journey to Vietnam.
Kim has met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times in the past year, briefing his country’s sole major ally before and after his historic summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The North Korean leader, who last met Xi in January, could be saving their next meeting for his trip back to Pyongyang to debrief the Chinese leader.
Trump and Kim met in June in Singapore, producing a vaguely worded agreement on denuclearisation, but progress has since stalled, with the two sides disagreeing over what the agreement meant.
Observers say tangible progress is needed in Hanoi to avoid the talks being dismissed as a publicity stunt.
Kim traveled to Singapore last year on a plane lent by Beijing.
Several sources said Kim was expected to arrive in Vietnam by train, stopping at the Dong Dang train station near the China border, then driving to Hanoi.
Soldiers were deployed to Dong Dang station and along the road to the capital, according to AFP reporters at the scene.
Their first meeting of the two leaders in Singapore was a blockbuster piece of diplomatic theatre criticised as light on substance.
For the sequel in Hanoi Trump and Kim will have to contend with harder questions.
Here is a look at what was exactly agreed in Singapore last year and what has transpired since then.
The inaugural summit between the leaders of two countries that never signed a peace treaty after the 1950-53 Korean War was brief, from 9 am to 2 pm.
In a short pronouncement, they pledged to seek a “lasting and stable peace regime”, with Kim committing “to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
There were no specific details, and disagreement over its interpretation has caused follow-up negotiations to stall.
Even South Korea’s dovish president, who seized on last year’s Winter Olympics to broker talks between rivals who had been trading personal insults and threats of war, has since described the text as “somewhat vague”.
What Washington said
In the months since Singapore, Washington has pushed to maintain sanctions against the North until its “final, fully verified denuclearisation” and has repeatedly referred to “the denuclearisation of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim”.
But that is not what the words in the statement say, and throughout the process with Trump Pyongyang has never made a public commitment to give up its weapons, rather than denuclearising the peninsula as a whole.
Diplomats say Washington’s phrasing could be a negotiating ploy by the Trump administration, effectively daring Pyongyang to come out and deny it.
At the same time, Trump said last week: “I’m in no rush. There’s no testing. As long as there’s not testing, I’m in no rush.”
The North has condemned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence on its nuclear disarmament as “gangster-like.”
It has long understood the denuclearisation of “the peninsula” as taking in issues such as the US military presence in South Korea and Washington’s nuclear umbrella over Seoul, and a lengthy commentary carried by the official KCNA news agency in December urged the US to “study geography”.
“When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force,” it said.
Pyongyang says it has already taken substantive measures by stopping missile and nuclear testing and the time has come for the US to respond with moves of its own, such as lifting sanctions.
And in his New Year’s Speech, North Korean leader Kim said Pyongyang is committed to denuclearisation of the peninsula – but only if Washington drops economic sanctions.
A way through?
Stephen Biegun, the US Special Representative for North Korea, has stressed that Washington has no intention of easing its US or United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang.
But, he has said, “we are prepared to explore (a) number of other things that could build trust.”
Earlier this month he told a Stanford University audience: “I have this perfect outcome moment where the last nuclear weapon leaves North Korea, the sanctions are lifted, the flag goes up in the embassy and the treaty is signed in the same hour.
“Now that’s an idea, I know, and these things are going to move haltingly along different courses.”