- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2019

HANOI, Vietnam | Kim Jong-un’s summit with President Trump is the main event, but insiders say the North Korean leader has an “ulterior motive” — smoothing ruffled feathers in Hanoi after Pyongyang in 2017 was accused of recruiting a Vietnamese woman to assassinate Mr. Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia.

Mr. Kim, whose talks with Mr. Trump are set for Wednesday and Thursday, will hold separate meetings with Vietnam President Nguyen Phu Trong in a bid to put the assassination issue to rest, according to a high-level foreign diplomatic source, who said the North Korean leader’s hopes to “kill two birds with one stone” on a rare international foray.

While the time of the meeting is uncertain, analysts say Mr. Kim yearns to revive ties with a potentially useful ally, ties that were strained two years ago when his order to assassinate his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, resulted in a now-notorious VX nerve agent attack at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

“That North Korea relied on two foreign women, one Vietnamese and one Indonesian, to apply the killer chemical compound, and that the assassination took place in a major Southeast Asian public space, cast a huge pall over North Korea’s relations with Southeast Asian states,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior fellow and Asia expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

There was global exposure of the video showing Kim Jong-nam collapsing after a young woman approached and touched his face with a piece of cloth at the airport terminal. His death came amid other purges in the Kim regime and was laced with intrigue over reports he was a favorite of China to replace his untested younger half-brother.

Two women in their late-20s — Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia — are accused of carrying out the killing. Both are still in custody in Malaysia, where they’re now charged with murder. Their trial has been complicated by Malaysian investigator claims that several North Korean operatives were at the airport on the day of the attack and remain at large.

The assassination triggered outrage across Asia, with Malaysia responding by expelling North Korea’s ambassador. The Trong government in Vietnam was more restrained, but diplomatic sources say the incident sparked deep mistrust in Hanoi over the idea that North Korean intelligence had exploited a young Vietnamese woman to commit murder.

There is “no doubt Chairman Kim harbors alternative agendas” in seeking Vietnam as the meeting spot for his second summit with Mr. Trump, said Mr. Cronin, who said a Kim-Trong understanding would be a significant development no matter how the Trump meetings go.

U.S. officials have not been shy in holding up Vietnam, a one-party Communist state, as a possible role model for the Kim regime, as it tries to break out of its economic isolation without surrendering political control. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to lengths during a visit to Vietnam last year to play up the nation’s emergence as a fast-growing Southeast Asian “tiger.” If Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons, it too “can reproduce this path.”

North Korea and Vietnam were allied closely during the Vietnam War, with Pyongyang sending millions of dollars in economic and military aid to support North Vietnam. But relations have been touchy during the decades since Pyongyang disagreed with Vietnam’s willingness to enter peace negotiations with Washington after the war.

With Pyongyang increasingly isolated by international sanctions over its rogue nuclear and missile activities during the 1990s and 2000s, trade and the potential for major economic ties with Vietnam sputtered. Mr. Kim’s visit to Hanoi this week will be the first since 1964 by a North Korean leader.

Vietnam is a pragmatic one-party system and the leadership in Hanoi understands [the Trump-Kim] summit represents an opportunity to play an important role in regional diplomacy,” said Mr. Cronin. “Kim can help repair relations with Vietnam, but Hanoi will be careful not to let a minor economic relationship jeopardize its improving ties with the United States, which is to say the U.S. may need Vietnam to step up and help school North Korea on economic development, but in a manner consistent with international sanctions.”

At the same time, he said, “while Chairman Kim may have had ulterior motives for wanting to conduct a summit in Vietnam, the main reason was a compromise with the United States over logical venues that were logistically feasible.”

“Recall Kim’s first preference for a summit was to host President Trump in Pyongyang,” Mr. Cronin told The Washington Times. “Kim did not want to travel so far that it would create another loss of face by having to fly Air China or another foreign airline. And, the Trump administration was well disposed to Vietnam because it cleared the first hurdle of negotiating with the North Korean dictator by suggesting that the United States could craft a new relationship, moving from enmity to amity with a former adversary.”

“In addition, the economic reform model reinforced the idea that Washington was no longer pressing regime change but could, even under certain circumstances, support economic development,” he said. “Those circumstances begin with the substantial denuclearization, the first baby steps of which may be taken in Hanoi.”

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