WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump confirmed Tuesday that a top North Korean official is headed to New York for talks attempting to salvage an upcoming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as diplomatic efforts also accelerated in Asia.
Trump said in a tweet that Kim Yong Chol was traveling to New York as part of ongoing meetings between the two countries to revive a summit on the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The two had been set to meet June 12 in Singapore, but Trump announced last week that he had decided “to terminate the planned Summit” following a provocative statement from the North. Trump has since suggested the meeting could be back on.
South Korean media had reported earlier that Kim Yong Chol’s name was on the passenger list for a fight Wednesday from Beijing to New York. Kim was seen in the Beijing airport on Tuesday by Associated Press Television.
“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”
Kim Yong Chol is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party’s central committee. He would be the highest-level North Korean official to travel to the United States since 2000, when late National Defense Commission First Vice Chairman Jo Myong Rok visited Washington, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and has said there is a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve. It remains unclear whom Kim Yong Chol will meet in the United States.
Meanwhile, a team of American diplomats involved in preparatory discussions was seen leaving a Seoul hotel on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether they went to Panmunjom, a village that straddles the border inside the Demilitarized Zone, to continue talks with their North Korean counterparts following their first meeting on Sunday. The U.S. officials are led by Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Manila, who formerly was the U.S. ambassador to Seoul and a top negotiator with North Korea in past nuclear talks.
South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night for likely summit preparations with U.S. officials.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Washington and Pyongyang were engaging in “working-level” talks to arrange the possible summit, but said it couldn’t confirm specifics. Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk also did not say whether Seoul knew of any U.S. plans regarding Kim Yong Chol’s visit, such as whether he and Pompeo would meet.
Trump withdrew from the planned summit with Kim Jong Un last Thursday, citing hostile North Korean comments, but has since said the meeting in Singapore could still happen as originally scheduled on June 12.
“We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th., and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date,” Trump tweeted Friday.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday morning in an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” that the president had “sent over two delegations – one for logistics and one for more diplomatic purposes that are on the ground making the logistic preparations for June 12.
“But, as the president has said,” she added, “if it doesn’t happen June 12 it could happen thereafter.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong Um, held a surprise meeting with the North Korean leader Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.
In their second meeting in a month, Moon said Kim Jong Un expressed a willingness to cooperate to end confrontation and work toward peace for the sake of a successful summit with Trump. But the North Korean leader also said he was unsure whether he could trust the United States to end hostile policies against North Korea and provide security assurances if the country does abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Moon.
At their first meeting on April 27, Kim Jong Un and Moon announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and permanent peace, which Seoul has tried to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that increases the chances of successful talks between Kim and Trump.
Their second meeting came after inter-Korean relations had chilled in recent weeks, with North Korea canceling a high-level meeting with Seoul over South Korea’s participation in a two-week military exercise with the United States that ended last week.
Since the 1970s, the United States and South Korea have been holding a major summertime exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian that involves tens of thousands of troops. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday there have been no discussions yet between Washington and Seoul on modifying the drills, which usually take place in August.
Despite the North’s apparent eagerness for a summit with Trump, there are lingering doubts about whether Kim Jong Un will fully relinquish his nuclear weapons, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival. Moon has insisted he can be persuaded to abandon his nuclear facilities, materials and bombs in a verifiable and irreversible way in exchange for credible security and economic guarantees.