Vietnam summit: From fire and fury to love letters, Trump to hold second meeting with North Korea's Kim

David Jackson

HANOI – Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will take their relationship to a whole new level when they convene Wednesday for their second nuclear summit in Vietnam.

The cold-and-hot dynamic between the pair is not your traditional world-leader connection – not when a U.S. president jokes about how he "fell in love" with a North Korean dictator, a year after each threatened the other with nuclear annihilation.

Not when the stakes of Trump's personal link with Kim are so high – the fate of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, the subject of another summit for which both leaders arrived in the Vietnamese capital Tuesday.

"I was really being tough – and so was he – and we would go back and forth," Trump said in a speech Sept. 29 in Wheeling, West Virginia, in the heat of the congressional elections.

"And then we fell in love, OK?" Trump told his somewhat bemused supporters. "No, really. ... He wrote me beautiful letters."

Almost exactly a year before, on Sept. 19, 2017, Trump had a much less friendly message for Kim. He told stunned delegates to the United Nations General Assembly that he would retaliate in kind to Kim's nuclear threats and "totally destroy North Korea" if necessary.

"Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime," Trump said then.

The road from "fire and fury" to love letters has been long and winding, but it fits a familiar pattern: Trump's dealings with other leaders have a decidedly personal touch, even when it comes to the possible use of nukes.

Here are some scenes from a diplomatic version of a shotgun marriage.

A rocky start 

Like many modern relationships, this one started on social media.

On Jan. 2, 2017, just 18 days before taking the oath of office, Trump used Twitter to fire off a warning shot to Kim: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!"

So began a tense year in which Trump and Kim basically took turns taunting each other – the North Koreans by testing nuclear weapons and missiles, Trump and supporters by mocking Kim and making not-so-veiled threats.

"North Korea has just launched another missile," Trump tweeted in July 2017. "Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"

Things were about to get a lot harsher.

Going nuclear

President Donald Trump threatens North Korea with "fire and fury" Aug. 8, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. From left are, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Trump, and first lady Melania Trump.

Aug. 8, 2017, brought reports that the U.S. intelligence community had determined that North Korea had developed a small nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile.

Asked about that finding, Trump responded with a phrase some have used to define his entire presidency – "fire and fury."

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," Trump told reporters gathered at his golf club at Bedminster, New Jersey. "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

As the world pondered the chilling prospect of a nuclear exchange, Trump did not back down – and neither did Kim.

Ahead of his United Nations speech, Trump applied one of his patented nicknames to Kim, one that combined a 1972 ballad by Elton John with a dig at the North Korean leader's lack of height: "Little Rocket Man."

In response, Kim likened Trump to a "barking dog" and applied a special word of his own to his rival: "dotard."

"I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire," Kim said.

The came the dawn of 2018, and the battle over who had the bigger button.

In a New Year's Day address, Kim said the United States can never make war on North Korea because "a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office."

Responding via Twitter, Trump said: "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

Things were starting to change, however.

President Donald Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.

The thaw 

It took a third party to bring Trump and Kim together.

His name is Moon Jae-in.

The president of South Korea made reconciliation with the North a prime objective of his administration. He also has met with Kim and is pursuing a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and replace the 1953 armistice that remains in place.

Moon also has encouraged talks between North Korea and the United States..

In early March 2018, a high-ranking South Korea official who had met with Kim reported that the North Korean leader was willing to discuss nuclear weapons with the United States.

That same week, a South Korean envoy traveled to Washington, D.C., bearing an envelope from Kim to Trump the size of a manila envelope – the apparent start of the letter exchange of which Trump has spoken so fondly.

The envoy also conveyed Kim's invitation of a meeting. Trump, to the surprise of some of his aides, accepted on the spot.

A first date in Singapore

After some ups and downs – Trump at one point canceled the prospective meeting – he and Kim got together on June 12 in Singapore, a city that was soon to be immortalized as a destination wedding site with the release of the romcom "Crazy Rich Asians."

As with any first date, Trump ladled on the charm.

"A great personality and very smart," Trump said. "Good combination. He’s a worthy negotiator." He added: "We will meet again. We will meet many times."

Kim thanked his new partner in kind, saying the Singapore summit "was possible thanks to hard work of President Trump."

Photos showed the two strolling the grounds of the resort on Sentosa Island, site of the summit. Cameras also caught Trump showing Kim the presidential limo, known as "The Beast," and allowing the North Korean leader to check out the inside.

Trump and Kim signed a general statement in which Kim pledged to denuclearize. Trump and the United States, meanwhile, held out the hope of economic assistance for North Korea down the line.

Filling in those goals will be a large part of their second date – in Vietnam.

More: Trump-Kim summit: North Korea must do something 'meaningful' to denuclearize before sanctions relief

Moving forward

Some critics say Kim is playing Trump and has no intention of eliminating his nuclear weapons deterrent.

Trump has defended his newfound friend, saying the former "Rocket Man" has stopped nuclear testing and exhibited good faith.

"I think we have a really meaningful relationship," Trump said last week.

More: Trump-Kim summit: North Korea must do something 'meaningful' to denuclearize before sanctions relief

As the relationship has evolved, Trump and his allies have said his harsh rhetoric in the beginning brought Kim "to the table" to negotiate. Others pointed out that North Korean leaders long sought the prestige of a presidential meeting, but Trump's predecessors refused because the North Koreans never offered anything meaningful.

"Trump has a personalist theory of diplomacy that has shown no payoffs for the U.S., in North Korea or anywhere else," said Van Jackson, a Pentagon official in President Barack Obama's administration and author of the book "On The Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War."

Trump's public life is littered with relationships gone bad. He and French President Emmanuel Macron once had nice things to say about each other; that changed after last year's dust-up over defense policy.

"Love sometimes fades," said Tizoc Chavez, a lecturer at Vanderbilt University whose research focuses on interactions between world leaders. "The good feelings with Trump sometimes don't last long."

When it comes to his future with Kim, Trump replies with a familiar formulation: "We'll see what happens."

"It was a very tough dialogue at the beginning," Trump noted to reporters last week. "'Fire and fury' ... 'Total annihilation' ... 'My button is bigger than yours' and 'my button works.' ... Remember that? "

Now?

"A very good relationship," Trump said. "I like him a lot and he likes me a lot."

Trump-Kim summit: Everything you should know about the meeting in Vietnam

Opinion: Donald Trump has leverage going into Vietnam summit

Kim family: The women who lift N. Korea leader Kim Jong Un's image: sister Kim Yo Jong, wife Ri Sol Ju

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vietnam summit: From fire and fury to love letters, Trump to hold second meeting with North Korea's Kim