By Soyoung Kim and James Pearson
SEOUL/HANOI (Reuters) – North Korea’s leadership once said its decisions should be “cloaked in fog”, Vietnam’s ruling party keeps a tight rein on domestic media, and U.S. President Donald Trump relishes keeping the press guessing.
Put this all together and it’s a nightmare for journalists. Lack of information on even basic details like locations and timing of the second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump, held in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi last week, meant planning for coverage was a formidable challenge.
Reuters covered the Feb 27-28 meeting with a team of 35 reporters, photographers and video journalists. That included six journalists stationed in Hanoi – the others came from all over Asia and from the United States.
Despite Trump announcing that he would meet Kim in Vietnam, the city was not specified until less than three weeks before the event. Quoting sources with direct knowledge of security and logistics planning, Reuters broke news that Kim would come to Hanoi for a state visit, indicating that the capital was the likeliest site for the summit.
After Hanoi was confirmed, there was still no official announcement of where exactly the two leaders would meet. Two days before the summit, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister Le Hoai Trung told reporters that the United States and North Korea had asked that the summit venue not be revealed.
“Please be sympathetic,” he said. “We want to be a good host.”
Since it is rare for any Western journalist to get anywhere near Kim, let alone stay in the same building, Reuters correspondents Soyoung Kim and Ju-min Park booked into Hanoi’s historic Sofitel Metropole Legend hotel, a luxury accommodation that sources told Reuters was among the finalists to host the summit.
Even staff at the Metropole itself were not sure until the eve of the summit if they, or the Government Guesthouse, a colonial-era building just opposite the hotel, would be hosting the event.
“One is a decoy,” a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Being at the Metropole gave the Reuters correspondents a peek behind the security cordon as staff arranged for Trump and Kim to meet, dine together for the first time, and walk in the gardens.
Reuters was able to capture a unique moment of North Korean and U.S. staffers getting ready together to roll out the red carpet for the two leaders, moments before key areas of the hotel were sealed off.
One North Korean official used his mobile phone to take a souvenir snapshot of his colleague standing in front of the hotel’s poolside Bamboo Bar, just steps away from where Trump and Kim would have their first dinner later in the day. Another North Korean smiled at an American official and explained the Korean name for a red flower in the garden.
Reuters was also the first to report that Kim would travel to Vietnam by train, allowing cameras to be positioned at strategic spots at the border station of Dong Dang.
The next day, for the first time ever, Kim answered questions from American reporters as he sat down with Trump at the Metropole.
Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason was travelling with the White House press pool, and asked Kim if he was ready to give up nuclear weapons.
“If I’m not willing to do that, I won’t be here,” Kim said through an interpreter.
Trump responded: “That might be the best answer you’ve ever heard.”
In the end, the two leaders’ self-proclaimed camaraderie was not enough to lead to a breakthrough in the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
The White House had released a public schedule, detailing a working lunch and a signing ceremony to be attended by both leaders on the second and last day of the summit.
But the White House later announced that Trump’s press conference had been advanced, signalling that the lunch and signing ceremony were off and that there was likely no agreement.
The press conference would be the first explanation of what had – and hadn’t – happened, but slow communication links from the hotel hosting the briefing meant Reuters had to rely on two correspondents in the room to phone in alerts as Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke
Perhaps nothing symbolized the chasm between hopes and reality more than the forlorn remnants of the lunch and signing ceremony that had been prepared at the Metropole.
Once again, a Reuters correspondent had a front seat view as staff tore down decorations and cleared the table where a meal of foie gras, snowfish and candied ginseng was to be served.
Kim spent another day and a half conducting a goodwill tour of Hanoi with Vietnamese leaders.
Reuters photographers following Kim on this last leg of his visit captured final views of the North Korean leader – with no deal in hand – as he boarded his train at Dong Dang on Saturday for the long ride home.
He finally reached Pyongyang early on Tuesday, North Korea’s KCNA news agency reported.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)