SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has dispatched top officials to the United States and Singapore, media reported on Tuesday, the latest indication that an on-again-off-again summit with U.S. President Donald Trump may go ahead.
North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was scheduled to fly to the United States on Wednesday after speaking to Chinese officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, meanwhile, flew to Singapore via Beijing late on Monday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.
At the same time, a “pre-advance” U.S. team was traveling to Singapore to meet North Koreans, the White House said.
U.S. government officials, including the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagin, left U.S. Yokota Air Base in Japan for Singapore on Monday, NHK said.
The reports indicate that planning for the historic summit, initially scheduled for June 12, is moving ahead after Trump called it off last week.
A day later, Trump said he had reconsidered, and officials from both countries were meeting to work out details.
In Singapore, a team of U.S. officials, with a fleet of idling vehicles on standby, was at a hotel on the resort island of Sentosa but declined to comment.
When Kim Chang Son was asked by a reporter at Beijing airport if he was flying to Singapore for talks with the United States, he said he was “going there to play”, according to footage from Nippon Television Network.
Choe Kang Il, a North Korean foreign ministry official involved with North America issues, was also spotted at Beijing Capital International Airport, according to Yonhap. It did not say whether Choe would be accompanying Kim Yong Chol.
China’s foreign ministry said it had no information to offer on any North Korean officials traveling to the United States via Beijing.
North Korea has faced years of isolation and economic sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs since it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
But events have moved quickly since Kim Jong Un made a conciliatory New Year’s address at the end of last year, following months of sharply rising tension.
In a flurry of diplomacy over recent days, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting on Saturday at the border village of Panmunjom, during which they agreed the North Korea-U.S. summit must be held.
On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said American and North Korean officials had met at Panmunjom. Sung Kim, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current ambassador to the Philippines, led the U.S. delegation, an official told Reuters.
Sung Kim will meet North Korea’s foreign ministry official Choi Sun Hee again on Wednesday at the DMZ, Yonhap reported on Tuesday, citing a diplomatic source, adding that the agenda for the Trump-Kim summit would roughly be decided at the meeting.
While likely substantive, those border discussions could be upstaged by any talks between Kim Yong Chol and officials in the United States, said Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat who dealt with North Korea under U.S. President George W. Bush.
“If the report that Kim Yong Chol is on his way to Washington is true, we now know that the main discussion of the agenda and any possible deal will take place there, not in Panmunjom.”
The future of North Korea’s nuclear program, U.S. security guarantees and coordination for a Trump-Kim summit are likely to be at the top of Kim Yong Chol’s agenda, analysts said.
“The most important agenda item would be the method of denuclearisation,” said Moon Sung-mook, a former South Korean military official who negotiated with Kim in the past. “We can expect that Kim is visiting the U.S. in order to do final coordination ahead of the June 12 summit.”
In Kim Jong Un and Moon’s first meeting on April 27, they agreed to seek the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula – but didn’t define what that meant, or how that would proceed.
Since then, North Korea has rejected U.S. demands for it to unilaterally abandon its nuclear program that experts say could threaten the United States.
North Korea also demanded the United States stop joint military drills with South Korea if it truly wishes for talks with North Korea, the North’s Rodong Sinmun said on Tuesday.
In response to reporters’ questions regarding the report, South Korea’s defense ministry said it did not have plans to change exercise schedules with the U.S. military.
North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programs as a deterrent against what it sees as U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
If Kim Yong Chol’s trip is confirmed, he would be the most senior North Korean official to meet top officials in the United States since Jo Myong Rok, a marshal, met then-President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.
A former military spy chief, Kim Yong Chol has played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between North Korea and South Korea, as well as the United States.
The United States and South Korea blacklisted Kim Yong Chol for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively.
He is banned from visiting the United States so a visit would indicate a waiver was granted.
During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, Kim was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010, and was linked by U.S intelligence to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.
North Korea denied any involvement in the attack on the ship and on Sony Pictures.
(Graphic: Korea – A land divided: tmsnrt.rs/2KdXMcS)
Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Malcolm Foster in TOKYO, Josh Smith, Christine Kim, Jeongmin Kim and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL, Michael Martina in BEIJING, and Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE. Editing by Lincoln Feast and Michael Perry