SEOUL (Reuters) – A senior North Korean official is headed to New York to discuss an upcoming summit, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, the latest indication that an on-again-off-again meeting between Trump and North Korea’s leader may go ahead next month.
“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Trump said in a Twitter post. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young (sic) Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”
Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and formerly head of a top North Korean military intelligence agency, 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.
The talks indicate that planning for the unprecedented summit, initially scheduled for June 12, is moving ahead after Trump called it off last week in a letter to the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
A day later, Trump, who frequently exchanged insults with Kim Jong Un before they began talking about a summit, said he had reconsidered and officials from both countries were meeting to work out details.
Kim Yong Chol will be the most senior North Korean official to meet top officials for talks in the United States since Jo Myong Rok, a marshal, met then-President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.
Kim Yong Chol coordinated the North Korean president’s two meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April and May. He and Kim Jong Un’s sister were the only North Korean officials to attend the first inter-Korean summit in April alongside the North Korean leader.
Analysts believe the United States is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree to sufficient steps toward getting rid of its nuclear weapons to allow a summit to take place.
DATE IN FLUX
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump, told Fox News a summit might not take place on the date originally set but perhaps shortly after.
North Korean leader Kim’s de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, meanwhile, flew to Singapore, the scheduled site of the meeting, via Beijing late on Monday, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.
At the same time, a “pre-advance” U.S. team was in Singapore to meet North Koreans.
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 and war-like rhetoric between Trump and Kim.
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 Korean Foreign Ministry official Choi Sun Hee again on Wednesday on the border, Yonhap reported, citing a diplomatic source, adding that the agenda for the Trump-Kim summit would be roughly worked out.
While likely substantive, those 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.
The future of North Korea’s nuclear program, which has been a source of international tension for decades, U.S. security guarantees and coordination for a Trump-Kim summit are likely to be at the top of the agenda, analysts said.
In Kim Jong Un and Moon’s first meeting on April 27, they agreed to seek the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula but did not 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, which experts say could threaten the United States.
North Korea also demanded the United States stop military exercises with South Korea, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.
South Korea’s Defence 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.
The United States and South Korea blacklisted Kim Yong Chol
for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively, so a visit to the United States would indicate the U.S. government has granted him a waiver.
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. He was linked by U.S intelligence to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014.
North Korea denied any involvement in both attacks.
Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Jeongmin Kim in Seoul, Doina Chiacu in Washington, Michael Martina in Beijing, Kaori Kaneko, Malcolm Foster and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Fathin Ungku in Singapore; Editing by Robert Birsel and Bill Trott