Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, is expected to arrive in Vietnam next Monday ahead of a planned second summit on nuclear disarmament with Donald Trump, the US president.
Mr Trump and Kim are due to meet in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday, aiming to break an ongoing deadlock since they first met in Singapore last June over the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
However, three sources told Reuters that Kim will travel in advance to the communist-ruled nation for bilateral meetings with Vietnamese officials.
If confirmed, it would be the first state visit of a North Korean leader since his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, travelled to the country in 1964.
Kim could also visit Vietnam’s manufacturing base of Bac Ninh, east of the capital, and the industrial port town of Hai Phong.
A Reuters witness saw Kim’s close aide, Kim Chang Son, in Hanoi on Saturday visiting a government guesthouse and the Metropole and Melia hotels in the city centre.
A delegation led by Kim was also spotted scouting the routes to Bac Ninh over the weekend.
South Korean newswire Yonhap on Monday speculated that Kim may seek to visit a smartphone factory owned by South Korea’s tech giant, Samsung, which is located in the same area. However, the report was not confirmed by the company.
Ha Long bay, a popular tourist destination famous for its towering limestone islands, has also been touted as a possible excursion.
But the focus of Kim’s trip would likely be the economy. Vietnam’s reforms, which have propelled it to become of one of the fast-growing economies in the world, have been widely touted as a road map for the impoverished hermit kingdom to follow.
The two countries were former Cold War allies before relations began to decline from 1968 over disagreements about regional politics and engagement with the US, and later because of investment and trade disputes.
Vietnam’s rapidly developing economy has ensured the Communist party’s grip on power, but following its model would require huge reforms in North Korea, where the majority of the population is kept isolated from the world and Kim is treated like a deity.
On Thursday, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said Washington aimed to “get as far down the road as we can” at its summit with North Korea.
North Korean propaganda site, Meari, also struck an optimistic note on Sunday that Pyongyang-Washington ties could experience “a major breakthrough.”
Reports suggest that pre-summit talks may include North Korea’s closure of its main nuclear scientific research centre in Yongbyon in exchange for some sanctions relief or a declaration to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
According to South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo, advisors from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have also suggested to Stephen Biegun, the US special envoy to North Korea, that an intermediate measure of “comprehensive, verifiable caps” (CVC) be placed on Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.
Toby Dalton, Carnegie’s co-director of Nuclear Policy, told the site that this could be acceptable middle ground towards the longer term goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.”