North Korea’s leader began his 2,400 mile trip from Pyongyang to Hà Nội on Saturday in his custom, olive green armored train. The train’s crossing into China follows days of speculation over Kim’s travel plans ahead of the talks scheduled for February 27 and 28.
Accompanying the North Korean leader was right-hand man and top general Kim Yong Chol, who met Trump at the White House last month, his sister and close aide Kim Yo Jong, and other high-ranking officials, the official KCNA news agency said.
US President Trump flies out of Washington on Monday for their second meeting, the highly-anticipated summit being hosted in Việt Nam.
The Vietnam summit is a follow-up to a meeting in Singapore last June which signalled a dramatic reset in relations between two leaders who had been spent previous months sabre-rattling and trading insults.
Although that meeting led to little concrete progress in Trump’s demands for North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme, the US leader has changed his tune.
While his top diplomat Mike Pompeo tempered expectations about what could be achieved in Hà Nội, Trump said North Korea could become one of the world’s “great economic powers” if it relinquished its nuclear arsenal.
“Chairman Kim realises, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the world,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
But Pompeo said North Korea remained a nuclear threat and that while internationally-backed sanctions had helped build pressure on persuading North Korea to denuclearise, it was “a complicated process” and there may have to be another summit after Việt Nam.
“We may not get everything done this week. We hope we’ll make a substantial step along the way.”
“I hope we can make a real substantive step forward (on denuclearisation) this week. It may not happen but I hope that it will.”
While Singapore produced a vaguely worded agreement on denuclearisation, progress has since stalled, with the two sides disagreeing over what the agreement meant.
Observers say tangible progress is needed in Hà Nội to avoid the talks being dismissed as a publicity stunt.
In his tweets, Trump praised Beijing for falling into line behind the US-led sanctions on Pyongyang, saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had been “very helpful in his support of my meeting” with Kim.
“The last thing China wants are large scale nuclear weapons right next door,” he added.
Kim has met Xi 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.
There were no signs of heightened security around Beijing railway station on Sunday, indicating Kim’s train likely bypassed the Chinese capital on the nearly 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) journey to Việt Nam.
But Kim, who last met Xi in January, could be saving their next meeting for his return trip to debrief the Chinese leader.
“Việt Nam wants to contribute its part to world peace… at this upcoming summit,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc told reporters on Sunday.
Rail travel is a family tradition that was started by Kim’s grandfather, the North’s founder Kim Il Sung, who travelled to Eastern Europe for his longest train ride in 1984.
The journey from China’s frozen northern border to subtropical Việt Nam presents a logistical headache and complex security challenges.
Justin Hastings, associate professor in international relations at the University of Sydney, said that would be “a pretty major operation”.
“They would have to clear the tracks, they would have to provide security for basically the entire length of the Chinese eastern seaboard,” he said.
But China may view the hassle as a necessary cost to get Kim to the summit.
“China wants North Korea to make some steps to denuclearize as much as anyone else,” Hastings said.