North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is visiting China from January 7 to 10 at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping,  Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Tuesday without giving further details.

China remains North Korea’s closest ally, extending a cross-border economic lifeline to the cash-strapped and heavily sanctioned state, and China has called for economic sanctions on North Korea to be eased.

While there have been tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang, the two Korean War allies retain close ties, with China being North Korea’s most important ally as the two nations face off against the United States.

The timing of Kim’s trip to China could be highly significant, potentially suggesting an imminent summit with US President Donald Trump. In 2018, Kim met Xi for discussions prior to his first summits with both South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April and with Trump in June.

Moon had been expecting to meet Kim in Seoul in December – a meeting that did not transpire for unexplained reasons. Meanwhile, Washington has given multiple indications there will be a meeting between Kim and Trump in January or February.

Vietnam to host summit?

While no date for the second Kim-Trump summit has yet been set, nor has a location been decided, South Korean daily the Munhwa Ilbo reported Monday that the meeting could take place in Hanoi.

According to the newspaper, which cited unnamed diplomatic sources for its report, US State Department officials have met multiple times with their counterparts in Hanoi to discuss the summit.

“There is a very short list of places which are suitable candidates [for the summit],” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University, told Asia Times. “They have to be within flying distance of North Korean government planes, which is 6-7 hours flight time from Pyongyang.”

China and Russia have a contentious relationship with the United States, while Japan has a contentious relationship, and no diplomatic relations, with North Korea, indicating those three nations are out of the running.

Lankov suggested that leaves Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore and Vietnam. However, Malaysia would be an unlikely candidate due to the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.

Vietnam enjoys diplomatic relations with both the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang assisted Hanoi during its war against the US, sending fighter pilots to help defend North Vietnamese airspace.

Washington’s diplomatic relations with Hanoi are more recent. However, from the US perspective, Vietnam could send meaningful messages to Kim. It is believed that one reason Washington sought Singapore as a summit location last June was to showcase the prosperity of an open society.

For similar reasons, Hanoi would showcase the capital of a communist-party run nation that formerly fought a war against the United States, but has reformed its economy and enjoys solid ties with its former enemy.

This picture taken on January 7, 2019 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 8, 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and his wife Ri Sol Ju leaving Pyongyang Station to visit China. - Kim Jong Un is on a four-day visit to China to meet President Xi Jinping, Chinese and North Korean state media said on January 8, after a special train was reported to have been seen crossing the border. The North's leader, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several senior officials set off from Pyongyang station on board his private train on January 7, the Korean Central News Agency reported. (Photo by KCNA VIA KNS / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP) / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSTHIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. /
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju leaving Pyongyang Station on January 7 to visit China. Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS

Progress and compromise

On Sunday, Trump told reporters in Washington that North Korea and the United States were negotiating a location for their anticipated summit, and that “it will be announced probably in the not-too-distant future.”

Kim and Trump – two leaders who both take a top-down approach to leadership – have much to discuss, given that the two forged apparently amicable relations in Singapore last June, and both Kim and Trump have publicly praised one another since.

However, their chief negotiators, ex-general Kim Yong Chol and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have failed to make any progress in narrowing the gap between the two nations.

The United States insists on maintaining sanctions pressure until denuclearization is complete. North Korea has demanded eased sanctions and progress on formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War as part of the overall process of denuclearizing and improving bilateral relations.

Amid this unpromising situation, much hangs on the outcome of the second summit where the two leaders can negotiate face to face.

“Objectively, [a Kim-Trump summit] is the only place where a meaningful compromise can be reached,” Lankov said. “The question is whether the US side is interested in a compromise: the official line is ‘all or nothing.’ Trump can negotiate a compromise, but whether he will or not – that is the question.”