Main Photo: The Melia Hotel in Hanoi, Monday 25th February
Date: February 2019
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Name: The Melia Hotel, Hanoi
Who and What: Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un decided to go for Round Two of The Talks
Then What Happened: In one of the more awkward double bookings in diplomatic history, the Hanoi hotel that was supposed to serve as a headquarters for the US press corps had also been reserved by one of the world’s most press-averse and security-fixated dictators, Kim Jong-un.
Such cohabitation was never going to work for the North Korean security apparatus, which is not accustomed to dealing with inquisitive journalists. Kim’s bodyguards have been known to accost reporters they suspect of having taken pictures of the leader and demand they hand over their smartphones for scrutiny.
After a brief discussion between the North Korean and Vietnamese officials in Hanoi’s Melia Hotel on Tuesday morning, the US journalists were unceremoniously evicted from the media centre that the White House advance teams had spent days erecting.
The fact that the problem was only discovered on Tuesday, the day before Kim is due to meet Donald Trump in the Vietnamese capital, said a lot about the haste with which this second summit between the two leaders has been arranged.
Hanoi was agreed as a venue two weeks ago, a win for the North Koreans who wanted to combine the trip with a relationship-building session with the Vietnamese leadership. The Trump administration had wanted to meet in the coastal resort of Danang.
Very few details about the timing and location of the summit have been released so far, other than that Trump and Kim – who both arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday – will have a brief one-on-one encounter on Wednesday evening followed by a working dinner with top officials. Their Vietnamese hosts will put on entertainment, possibly in the French colonial-era opera house in central Hanoi.
A government guesthouse has been made available for working talks on Thursday, the duration and timing of which remain uncertain, but there may also be talks in the Metropole Hotel, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American and where Jane Fonda stayed when she made a wartime visit to North Vietnam in 1972.
Given the warmth of the relationship Trump claims to have developed with Kim, and the very many unanswered questions about how and whether North Korea will disarm, it is unclear why the two leaders have put off their first meeting until Wednesday evening.
By then, Kim will have been in town for more than 24 hours after a 65-hour ride from Pyongyang in his personal armoured train. Like his father, Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader tends to avoid air travel, apparently for security reasons.
The Chinese government flew him to the first summit with Trump in Singapore last June, but according to South Korean diplomats Kim has since decided that appearing to depend on China for transport is at odds with the regime’s philosophy of self-reliance. North Korea’s answer to Air Force One, an old Ilyushin, has not been tested over a long distance for some years.
After lumbering across China at a top speed of 38mph, Kim’s green train stopped at the Vietnam border town of Dong Dang on Tuesday morning, where a red carpet had been rolled out and was flanked by Vietnamese soldiers in white ceremonial uniforms. Kim, his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, and their entourage disembarked and the North Korean leader climbed into a stretch Mercedes limousine, which drove off with six bodyguards jogging on either side, the 35-year-old despot waving through a half-opened window.
The jogging cordon accompanied the Mercedes out of the centre of Dong Dang, leaving it to drive the rest of the way to Hanoi escorted by Vietnamese motorcycle police.
The 100-mile stretch of road was closed to other traffic for most of the day, as was the centre of Hanoi for Kim’s arrival. Spectators clutching Vietnamese, North Korean and US flags crammed the pavements in the old district for the last leg of the journey, where the motorcade was accompanied by an armoured car with a machine gunner perched on the top.
Trump arrived on Tuesday night on Air Force One after refuelling stops at RAF Mildenhall in the UK and Qatar. Thousands of people, some holding bunches of flowers and Vietnamese flags, turned out to watch his motorcade drive along a dark and closed-off highway into the capital.
He is due to meet the Vietnamese president, Nguyen Phu Trong late on Wednesday morning. After lunch with Vietnamese officials there is then another long vacant space in Trump’s diary until his face-to-face with Kim in the evening. No meetings have been scheduled for Thursday, but it is assumed that is when the business of the summit will be done.
Trump has said he would be happy enough if North Korea sticks to its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and his spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, has said the fact that the two leaders are meeting for a second time is a success in itself.
Any further progress – perhaps a declaration aimed at formally ending the state of hostilities that is still in force since the 1950-53 Korean war, establishing mutual liaison offices, or more North Korean steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons infrastructure and open up its facilities to international inspection – would be a further sign that the US and North Korea are stepping away from the nuclear brink.
Hanoi, once bombed daily by the US during the Vietnam war, has eagerly embraced its identity as the “City for Peace”, proclaimed by hastily printed billboards and banners around the city.
Diplomats and reporters said the last-minute switch was emblematic of the logistical mayhem that surrounded the prelude to the Hanoi meeting, which was arranged with far less lead time than talks held in Singapore last year.
Vietnam and North Korea are both run by authoritarian governments that prohibit independent domestic media and typically go to great lengths to squash political dissent and control the flow of information.
But even Vietnamese officials were frustrated by the 11th-hour changes forced upon them by the North Koreans before the Hanoi meeting, an American diplomat said.
The diplomat, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the news media about the subject, said that his comment did not refer specifically to the Meliá issue, but to multiple site changes that had caused headaches for all involved.
When it was first reported in South Korea on Tuesday that Mr. Kim would stay in the same hotel as the American press centre, many analysts expressed surprise.
“Until recently, it would have been unimaginable for Chairman Kim’s entourage and the journalists from the United States, North Korea’s ‘sworn enemy,’ to reside under the same roof, even if temporarily,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
“If Chairman Kim really accepted the risk of him and his aides being exposed to the cameras of American journalists, it could be a sign that he wanted to show the American media a willingness to negotiate denuclearization and improve ties with the United States,” Mr. Cheong added.
The apparent change of plans at the Meliá will not directly affect Mr. Trump, who is staying across town at the JW Marriott Hotel where President Barack Obama stayed during a trip to Vietnam in 2016. (Former President Bill Clinton spoke at the hotel in 2015, at the American Embassy’s Fourth of July party, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalising of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States.)
But it may affect American journalists, even if they booked rooms at hotels other than the Meliá, because now they will have to file their stories from somewhere else.
The international media center for the summit meeting, where the White House press corps will be moved, is downtown in a Soviet-style events center of pillars and chandeliers that was built in 1985. Rows of desks have been placed in various rooms, which are usually hired out for concerts and weddings.
Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump are expected to meet on Wednesday and Thursday at one of two downtown venues. One is the Government Guest House, the former headquarters of a transitional government led by Vietnam’s founding president, Ho Chi Minh, after he declared the country’s independence from France in 1945. Another is the colonial-era Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, where Senator John McCain of Arizona tended to stay on his trips to Vietnam.
At the Metropole this week, all guests have been required to pass through metal detectors and to show specially stamped identification papers to enter.
The South Korean news media reported on Tuesday that the summit meetings on Thursday could take place at the Metropole. Guests have also been informed that some of the hotel’s facilities would have limited access from Tuesday through Thursday night.
THPT Comment: Despite some great hotels in Hanoi, not a successful outcome as Talks faltered….Anyone care to suggest a hotel for Round Three?
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