HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s armored limousine, surrounded by his phalanx of burly bodyguards, rolled into Vietnam’s capital Tuesday ahead of a summit with President Donald Trump that’s meant to deal with perhaps the world’s biggest security challenge: Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear program that stands on the verge of viably threatening targets around the planet.
Soldiers, police and international journalists thronged the streets outside Hanoi’s Melia Hotel where Kim was set to stay, and hundreds of eager citizens stood behind barricades hoping to see the North Korean leader. As Vietnamese, North Korean and U.S. flags fluttered in a cold drizzle, dozens of cameras flashed and some citizens screamed and used their mobile phones to capture Kim’s rock-star-like arrival at the hotel.
“I like him,” local resident Van Dang Luu, who works at a nearby bank, said of Kim. “He is very young and he is very interesting. And he is very powerful,” she said. “Trump is not young, but I think he is very powerful.”
Vietnam’s authoritarian leaders set up a huge security apparatus to welcome Kim, shutting long stretches of highway and locking down swaths of the bustling capital city. Earlier in the morning, Kim, grinning broadly and waving, stepped off his armored train at the end of a long ride that started in Pyongyang and wound through China to the Vietnamese border. He shook hands with officials as Vietnamese troops in crisp, white uniforms and black boots stood at attention on a red carpet at the Dong Dang railway station on the China-Vietnam border.
Hours ahead of his border crossing, footage from Japanese TV network TBS showed Kim taking a pre-dawn smoke break at a train station in China, a woman who appeared to be his sister, Kim Yo Jong, holding a crystal ashtray at the ready.
Kim’s arrival comes as Vietnamese officials scramble to finish preparations for a rushed summit; they have shared few details about the specifics of a meeting that the world will be watching closely.
Trump was flying to Hanoi from Washington and set to arrive later Tuesday.
Although many experts are skeptical Kim will give up the nuclear weapons he likely sees as his best guarantee of continued rule, there was a palpable, carnival-like excitement among many in Hanoi as the final preparations were made for the meeting. There were also huge traffic jams in the already congested streets.
Officials in Hanoi said they only had about 10 days to prepare for the summit — much less than the nearly two months Singapore had before the first Trump-Kim meeting last year— but still vowed to provide airtight security for the two leaders.
“Security will be at the maximum level,” Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Hoai Trung told reporters.
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. Kim’s decision to take a train, not a plane, may have been influenced by the better ability to control security.
Vietnam is eager to show off its huge economic and development improvements since the destruction of the Vietnam War, but the country also tolerates no dissent and is able to provide the kind of firm hand not allowed by more democratic potential hosts.
“I really hope to catch a glimpse of Kim Jong Un. He is an interesting man. And he rarely travels anywhere so it would be great to see him here,” said Nguyen Trong Toan, a retired teacher who was waiting by the side of the street on Kim’s expected travel route.
There are high expectations for the Hanoi summit after a vague declaration at the first meeting in June in Singapore that disappointed many.
In a meeting with senior aides in Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that the Trump-Kim talks would be a critical opportunity to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Moon, who met Kim three times last year and has lobbied hard to revive nuclear diplomacy between the U.S. 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 U.S.-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,” Moon said.
Trump, via Twitter, has worked to temper those expectations, predicting before leaving for Hanoi a “continuation of the progress” made in Singapore but adding a tantalizing nod to “Denuclearization?” He also said that Kim knows that “without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World.”
North Korea has spent decades, at great political and economic sacrifice, building its nuclear program, and there is widespread skepticism among experts that it will give away that program cheaply.