Senior North Korean official heads to US to plan for Trump summit
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Senior North Korean official heads to US to plan for Trump summit

White House confirms US ‘actively’ preparing for ‘expected’ meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore

In this image made from video, Kim Yong Chol, right, a former military intelligence chief who is now Kim Jong Un's top official on inter-Korean relations, walks through Beijing airport after his arrival Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (AP Photo)
In this image made from video, Kim Yong Chol, right, a former military intelligence chief who is now Kim Jong Un's top official on inter-Korean relations, walks through Beijing airport after his arrival Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The US “continues to actively prepare” for an “expected summit” between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the White House said, as diplomatic efforts are underway on two continents ahead of the historic meeting.

Trump confirmed Tuesday that a top North Korean official, Kim Yong-chol, is headed to New York for talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It marks the latest sign that prospects for the summit are growing, just days after it was ostensibly called off by Trump, as teams of US officials have arrived at the Korean demilitarized zone and in Singapore to prepare for the meeting.

The conference had been scheduled for June 12 in the island nation, but Trump announced last week that he had decided to “terminate” the meeting following a provocative statement from the North and its decision to skip planning talks and ignore preparatory phone calls. White House officials have characterized the letter from the president to Kim as a negotiating tactic, designed to bring the North back to the table.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that since the letter, “the North Koreans have been engaging,” with the US.

“The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump’s expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

South Korean media earlier reported 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.

Trump tweeted: “We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea. 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.

Pompeo has traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with Kim Jong-un, after which he said there was a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve in the summit. It remained unclear whom Kim Yong-chol will meet in the United States.

In this May 9, 2018, photo provided on May 10, 2018, by the North Korean government, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, poses with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

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 US officials are led by Sung Kim, the US ambassador to Manila, who formerly was the US ambassador to Seoul and a top negotiator with North Korea in past nuclear talks.

The White House emphasized that it has remained in close contact with South Korean and Japanese officials as preparations for the talks continue. Sanders said Trump will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on June 7th to coordinate their thinking ahead of the summit. Trump hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week.

South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night, where other US officials, led by White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, are preparing for the summit.

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 US 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.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks during a meeting with his senior aides at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 14, 2018. (Bee Jae-man/Yonhap via AP)

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.”

Moon, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong-un, 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 expressed willingness to cooperate to end confrontation and work toward peace for the sake of a successful summit with Trump. But Kim also said he was unsure whether he could trust the United States over its promise to end hostile policies against North Korea and provide security assurances if the country does abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Moon.

In this May 26, 2018 photo North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, walk after their meeting at the northern side of Panmunjom in North Korea. (South Korea Presidential Blue House via AP)

At their first meeting on April 27, Kim 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. The Koreas have agreed to put high-level discussions back on track with a meeting on Friday. But that did not stop North Korea’s state media from continuing its criticism of allied military exercises on Tuesday, saying if Washington “sincerely hopes for the talks, it should stop the acts of threatening its dialogue partner by force.”

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 Kim’s apparent eagerness for a summit with Trump, there are lingering doubts about whether he will fully relinquish his nuclear weapons, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival. Moon has insisted Kim 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.

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