After hastily arranging the meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, Vietnam got what it wanted.
—Vietnam was celebrating its Lunar New Year holiday when President Donald Trump said his second summit with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, would take place here. That announcement was barely three weeks ago. At the time, much of this country was shut down, as is customary during the holiday, Tet. Officials were home visiting family, most restaurants and shops were closed, and city streets were quiet.
With little warning, that had to change. Vietnam is not unaccustomed to high-profile meetings: It hosted the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which brought world leaders, including Trump, to the coastal city of Da Nang, and a World Economic Forum meeting in Hanoi last year. But the relatively short notice between Trump’s announcement and the timing of the meeting, combined with the difficulties of preparing for the arrival of Kim, the famously paranoid leader of a country closed off to the world, complicated matters further.
The block surrounding the Meliá hotel, which hosted Kim and his security entourage, was completely closed. Members of the traveling White House press corps, who had booked the hotel for their work space and briefing rooms, were kicked out the day the North Korean leader arrived. Television crews staked out each corner, while four armored personnel carriers sat parked two blocks away. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stood guard (they did, however, allow people to take photos with them). Roads were thrown into chaos whenever Trump or Kim was on the move, as a huge police presence appeared and blocked traffic. Curious onlookers lined streets each evening as the two leaders separately made their way to the Metropole hotel, where the talks were being held.
Fittingly, the biggest problems with the summit’s execution were related to the media: Vietnam’s press is entirely state-owned and strictly controlled, while published dissent or criticism is swiftly quelled through a sophisticated cybersecurity system. In Hanoi for the summit, journalists were largely restricted to the International Media Center, housed in an imposing, drafty modernist edifice near the city’s main train station.
But while the summit may have landed with a thud in terms of policy, Vietnam got the image it wanted: Trump standing alongside Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the American president waving a Vietnamese flag, and the Vietnamese premier waving an American flag.