Donald Trump has flown off to meet Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, and nervous observers are expecting more drama from the second summit between the two erratic leaders.
Mr Trump is supremely confident about his relationship with the North Korean leader, tweeting that Kim realises that giving up nuclear weapons could help his country “fast become one of the great economic powers.”
The US President has been effusive about Kim, saying the pair “fell in love” and have exchanged letters following their first summit in Singapore last June. Mr Trump believes firmly in his ability to negotiate a successful deal and move towards denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, but critics are unconvinced Kim has taken any real steps towards this goal.
The enormous security operation swinging into action for the summit in Hanoi has had just ten days to prepare, far less than the nearly two months they said Singapore had. The meeting is likely to provide more insight into the bizarre relationship, and gives Mr Trump a chance to make clear demands over the expectations on North Korea.
But the President has been attacked for his friendly overtures towards a leader notorious for human rights abuses against his own people, praising and flattering his intelligence and controversially saluting a North Korean general at their first summit. Washington will be watching nervously for any embarrassing moments of apparent capitulation from Mr Trump.
“Trump has really virtually no interest in the internal affairs — and human rights, in particular — of other regimes around the world,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told the Washington Post.
His circle claims his strategy of buttering up Kim is working wonders for the move towards denuclearisation and peace on the Korean Peninsula. They claim it is a slow process of resolving a decades-long conflict, and that Mr Trump is on the right track in developing and maintaining a cordial relationship.
“We have managed to sustain engagement now for many months, largely due to the personal determination of President Trump and his consistent willingness to use voice and written word to send positive messages of trust and confidence to Chairman Kim and the North Korean leadership,” US special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun told the Post.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told NBC’s Today that denuclearisation was “a long and difficult task”, although he told Fox News he was hoping for a “substantive step forward”.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders played down expectations, telling Fox “the President’s not in a hurry.”
Mr Trump predicted a “continuation of the progress” made in Singapore, with a vague mention of “Denuclearization?”
But Kim, currently heading through China to Vietnam’s capital on an armoured train, may have no intention of capitulating, instead exploiting Mr Trump’s overtures of friendship to improve North Korea’s standing in the world, and reduce trade sanctions.
“There’ll Be One Winner,” wrote Nicholas Eberstadt in the New York Times. “One wants to make North Korea safe for the world, while the other wants to make the world safe for North Korea.”
Kim will first meet with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong and is expected to discuss reforms that have seen it become of one of the fast-growing economies in the world and have been suggested as a road map for the impoverished hermit kingdom.
In Hanoi, T-shirts were being sold bearing Kim’s face along with the phrase “Rocket Man”, the insulting nickname Mr Trump gave Kim in 2017 before their love-in began, when North Korea’s weapons tests and an exchange of threats between the leaders had many fearing war. Kindergarteners dressed in traditional Korean Hanbok were practising songs to welcome Kim. Tourists posed in front of the hundreds of US and North Korean flags around the city.
“Security will be at the maximum level,” Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Hoai Trung told reporters at a briefing.
Head of the information ministry Nguyen Manh Hung said the 3000 journalists from 40 countries expected in Hanoi could rely on his agency as “you’d count on a family member.”
The ultra-tight security will be appreciated by North Korean authorities, who are extremely vigilant about the safety of Kim, the third member of his family to rule the North with absolute power. His decision to take a train, not a plane, may have been influenced by better ability to control security. When Kim flew to Singapore, North Korea borrowed a Chinese plane.
Vietnam is eager to show off its huge economic and development improvements since the destruction of the Vietnam War, but the country also does not tolerate dissent and can exercise more control than more democratic potential hosts.
Two men impersonating Kim and Mr Trump have been posing for pictures with onlookers ahead of the summit.
Last week, Australian Kim lookalike Lee Howard Ho Wun wrote on Facebook that about 15 police or immigration officers demanded a mandatory “interview” and threatened him with deportation. He said officials later told him that his visa was invalid and he had to leave the country.
“I feel a little bit annoyed,” the Hong Kong-based impersonator, who uses the name Howard X, said as he checked out of his hotel. “But what is to be expected of a one-party state with no sense of humour?”
Mr White will be allowed to stay in the city but has been asked to stop appearing in costume in public.
Vietnam has announced an unprecedented traffic ban along a possible arrival route for Kim, which will affect a 169-kilometre stretch of highway from the border with China to Hanoi. Ahead of Kim’s arrival, hundreds of soldiers guarded the station by the border, where he may alight and finish his journey to Hanoi by car.
“Dong Dang station will receive leader Kim Jong-un’s train, after it passes the Vietnam-China border, starting his official visit to Vietnam and attend USA-DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) summit,” Vietnam’s Government Office said in a statement.
The June summit disappointed many observers for not appearing to achieve enough, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters in Seoul these talks would be a critical opportunity to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Mr Moon, who met Kim three times last year and has lobbied hard to revive nuclear diplomacy between the US and North Korea, is eager for a breakthrough that would allow him to push ambitious plans for inter-Korean engagement, including lucrative joint economic projects that are held back by US-led sanctions against the North.
“If President Trump succeeds in dissolving the world’s last remaining Cold War rivalry, it will become yet another great feat that will be indelibly recorded in world history,” Mr Moon said.
North Korea has spent decades building its nuclear program at great political and economic sacrifice, and there is doubt among experts that it will easily give up its program.
South Korean media reports that Mr Trump and Kim might strike a deal that stops short of a hoped-for road map for full North Korean denuclearisation.