A visit by a North Korean delegation to a Vietnamese city on a popular train route from China has sparked fevered speculation that Kim Jong-un could travel by rail – or road – for his summit with US President Donald Trump.
The US and North Korea have dispatched several teams to Vietnam ahead of the summit in Hanoi on February 27-28, though officials have remained tight-lipped on their movements and meetings.
On Tuesday, a Vietnamese source with knowledge of planning for high-level diplomatic meetings said that several North Korean officials had visited the China border area on Monday.
“A team from North Korea was in Lang Son [city] on Monday. They travelled there from Hanoi by car,” the source said, requesting anonymity.
Japan’s Asahi TV reported that a North Korean team visited a rail station in a city near the China border and also surveyed road conditions in the area.
There is no airport in Lang Son city, prompting a swirl of speculation that Kim may make the long, overland train or road journey from China to Vietnam.
Next week’s meeting follows a landmark summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore last June, the first for sitting leaders of the US and North Korea – who are technically still at war.
Kim travelled to Singapore on a plane lent by Beijing for the last summit.
The nearly 4,000km journey from Pyongyang to Hanoi – via Beijing and Lang Son – could take upwards of 60 hours on a passenger train.
But according to a source cited by Seoul-based NK News website, a rail trip could create “too many problems on the way”, since Kim’s slow train could disrupt China’s high-speed rail network. Another option for Kim’s trip could be to travel by rail to Beijing – a trip he has made several times – and then fly to Hanoi.
The ultra-secretive North Korean leader has not publicly confirmed next week’s meeting with Trump in Hanoi, which will be his first visit to Vietnam.
North Korea’s special representative for the US, Kim Hyok-chol, is expected to arrive in Hanoi in the coming days to meet with his US counterpart Stephen Biegun later in the week.
Alex Wong, US deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, is already in the Vietnamese capital preparing for the summit.
Observers say tangible progress is needed at the second summit after the first meeting produced vaguely worded promises on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament with few concrete deliverables.